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by Michael Portantiere

Shonn Wiley, On His Toes

  • Shonn Wiley-large.jpgTriple-threat Shonn Wiley has done lots of shows in all sorts of venues, but even if you were to chart his career only in terms of his participation in the City Center Encores! series of staged concert musicals, you'd see clearly that he's a rising star. His first Encores! show was On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, then he went on to be featured in No, No, Nanette and Stairway to Paradise. Now he's about to open in Rodgers & Hart's On Your Toes in the leading role of "Junior" Dolan, which was created on Broadway by Ray Bolger.

    With a cast that also includes Christine Baranski, Walter Bobbie, Kelli Barrett, Karen Ziemba, and Randy Skinner, not to mention Irina Dvorovenko of the American Ballet Theater and Joaquin De Luz of the New York City Ballet, On Your Toes sounds unmissable. I recently spoke with Shonn about the project in a rehearsal room at City Center, during his lunch break.


    BROADWAYSTARS: On Your Toes at Encores! How exciting.

    SHONN WILEY: Yes, it is. I love this kind of show; the last thing I did in New York was Vaudeville Man, at the York. I was introduced to the great movie musicals by my father, and I grew up idolizing performers like Ray Bolger, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire. My father took dance classes with Peter Gennaro and was ready to move to New York to become a dancer when he was in his late teens, but then Vietnam happened and he enlisted. He served three tours in Vietnam as a marine, and when he got back, things were just different, so he put that dream up on the shelf and started a family. But he's still dancing, to this day. He'll be at our dress rehearsal, and he and my mom are coming to opening night.

    STARS: The show has such an amazing pedigree: score by Rodgers & Hart; book by Rodgers, Hart, and George Abbott; choreography by George Balanchine.

    SHONN: And I love the back story about how the piece came together. It was actually written for Fred Astaire to do as a movie, but the story is that he passed on it because he wouldn't be able to wear his white tie and tails.

    STARS: I did not know that.

    SHONN: Yes, it was supposed to be a movie, but then they turned it into a stage show and found Ray Bolger.

    STARS: I know that a movie version was eventually made, but apparently they cut most of the score. Bastards! Have you seen that movie?

    SHONN: No, I haven't. I was looking for footage of "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" online and I found the Gene Kelly-Vera Ellen version [from Words and Music, the 1948 pseudo-biopic about Rodgers & Hart], but it's nothing like what we're doing.

    STARS: Reviving On Your Toes at City Center as part of the Encores! series is especially neat in that Balanchine used to work here when this theater was home to the New York City Ballet.

    SHONN: Yes! Arlene Shuler [President and CEO of City Center] was talking to us about the building and how it was Balanchine's home before Lincoln Center. And [Encores! artistic director] Jack Viertel said that City Center is a place where great old musicals happen and great dance happens, so it's kind of nice to be ending this season with a show that brings them both together. For me, it's been a joy because I love what Irina and Joaquin do. I studied ballet, I appreciate it so much, and this show gives us a chance to cross-pollinate and work together; they're speaking for the first time on stage, and I'm being asked to do things that aren't really in my comfort zone, because I'm more of a song and dance man.

    STARS: Natalia Makarova was so funny in the 1983 revival, aside from her brilliant dancing. I'll never forget the speech she gave when she accepted her Tony Award. I don't remember the exact words, but she said something along the lines of, "I'd like to thank my husband for not getting in my way."

    SHONN: Ha! I love it! We just did a read-through and sing-through of the show today, and Irina had us all in stitches. It's great to play the straight man against her.

    STARS: What a great cast you have.

    SHONN: Yes. Randy Skinner gave me my Equity card, my first job in New York. We've got an incredible ensemble. It's a big show! But rehearsals have been fun. The days are really flying by.

    STARS: Maybe the fact that the project was originally conceived as a movie partly explains why the show is so big. There's a whole lot going on, so many scenes and characters. The score is wonderful. I'm looking forward to hearing those standards again.

    SHONN: "It's Got to Be Love," "There's a Small Hotel."

    STARS: "Glad to Be Unhappy." And I love that cute, clever song you do at the beginning, with the chorus.

    SHONN: "Questions and Answers." The score is really smart. All of the things they talk about in "Too Good for the Average Man" -- plastic surgery, a man "waking up to find that he's a girl" -- were very risky to put into a musical in the thirties.

    STARS: It's one of the most entertaining shows I've ever seen. I love a dark, serious musical as much as anyone, but sometimes you just want to have a good time.

    SHONN: Yes. And to hear this score played by a full orchestra conducted by Rob Fisher? I think people are going to love it.

    STARS: I can't wait.

    SHONN: Me neither, although I feel like I could use another week of rehearsal. But I guess everyone says that when they do an Encores! show.


    [For more information on the City Center Encores! production of On Your Toes, visit www.nycitycenter.org]

    Published on Monday, May 6, 2013

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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