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  • Never Gonna Danceës Karen Ziemba:
    Tony nomination, Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical

    She's a Broadway baby and a well-like Broadway darling, but hardly anyone expected Karen Ziemba to get a Tony nomination for what amounted to a guest or cameo appearance in the short-lived Never Gonna Dance. But every season, the Tony nominators give us a couple of unexpecteds. Even if she was only showcased in three numbers, it couldn't happen to a nicer person.

    Her Mabel was sort of the lovable sidekick "older sister" to Penny, played by Nancy Lemenager. Ziemba drew on Helen Broderick, Mabel in the original film [and mother of actor Broderick Crawford] for inspiration. Broderick starred with Astaire in the stage production of The Band Wagon and had a lucrative film career from 1924-1946 playing "dames" [Top Hat, Rage of Paris, Naughty But Nice, No, No, Nanette]. "Other role models," she says, "were Rosalind Russell and Eve Arden, two actresses who were quick with the quips and snappy dialogue. Growing up, sitting through countless hours of movies, they were two actresses I really admired."

    We all knew Ziemba could dance, as she ably proved in the Tony-winning Contact, for which she took home the Best Featured Actress Tony and Drama Desk, but how about that shimmy? Her "Shimmy with Me," where she teaches a dance class to shake their booties - or chassis's - to the black-influenced "jive" rhythms of the ë20s dance Mae West took from minstrel shows into the mainstream, was a show-stopper.

    "It was the Jazz Age," explains Ziemba, "a time when people were more open with their movements and looser. The Shimmy was executed to the fullest when women shed their corsets and girdles. I really got to be a red-hot mama! It was a blast."

    The number is from the Kern/P.G. Wodehouse revue The Cabaret Girl, and it's still hard to imagine that the composer of Show Boat and the man who created the Jeeves books, could get so down and dirty, but, Ziemba notes, "it came at a time when composers like Irving Berlin were writing rags."

    Ziemba says that NGD's choreography by Jerry Mitchell [nominated for a 2004 Tony nomination], "left audiences breathless. It was thrilling, the kind of ballroom and tap I did in 42nd Street and Crazy for You. Steel Pier, which was about marathon dancing [and for which Ziemba was Tony-nominated] and Contact had classically-based ballroom partner dances. Coming from a ballet background, I learned partnering very early. I love contact dancing. The secret is to make that contact seem easy, smooth and ultra romantic."

    The NGD choreography is the type we had never seen from Mitchell. "He hadn't had the opportunity to execute this type of dance," says Ziemba, "because of the types of shows he's choreographed, Hairspray, The Full Monty [not to mention Broadway Bares, which didn't call for this type of male/female partnering. His choreography was brilliant in how it propeled the story forward."

    There were a lot of musical influences in her family. Her grandmother was Winifred Heidt, who sang with City Opera in the 50s. "Mom wanted to be a dancer," relates Ziemba, "but got married and raised a family."

    Fascinated with dance, "I started taking lessons when I was six." And she was soon putting on shows. "I had no sisters," she laughs, "so I pulled my three brothers into my little scenarios. They played all the characters, including the women. I made them don tights, masks and wigs. And play instruments. They loved me!"

    By junior high, she was performing with a ballet company. In her sophomore year, she won her first musical lead, none other than Maria in West Side Story. "It was a wonderful and learning experience," she states. "When you're singing a score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, not to mention speaking Arthur Laurents' words, you discover that there're many ways to express yourself. I was bitten by the bug, but wanted to do more than just dance. I wanted the whole shebang."

    After college, she headed to New York, where she made her Broadway debut in A Chorus Line in 1982. Ziemba says she'd have a difficult time naming her favorite role, "but it would be hard to top my first Broadway experience and being part of a show about surviving as a dancer in theater. To start with one of the best was incredible. Every performance, I couldn't wait to get out there."

    Ziemba is currently co-starring [except Sunday]through July 18 in Paper Mill Playhouse's Guys and Dolls as Adelaide opposite Michael Mastro's Nathan Detroit.

    Little Shop of Horrors' Hunter Foster:
    Tony nomination, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical

    How many Broadway musicals have the audience going wild as soon as the curtain rises? And it doesn't stop there. At the revival of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's Little Shop of Horrors, the momentum builds like a runaway train. There are standing ovations before the actors even take their bows and screaming fans at the stage door.

    "It was wonderful to have such enthusiast audiences," says Hunter Foster, who plays Seymour, the nerdy botanist, through Sunday [June 6], before going over to The Producers where he'll play Leo Bloom. "People know the characters and the songs -- from its original Off Broadway run, the film adaptation and the fact that it's been done by nearly every regional theatre, university and high school."

    Foster, amazingly boyish for someone in his mid-30s, adds, "It was one thing to have seen it at your community theatre, but this is Broadway, with all the production values that name implies. And we did pull out all the stops. With a show as loved as Little Shop, there are high audience expectations. Our producers, choreographer Kathleen Marshall and [multi Tony-winning] director Jerry Zaks saw to it that we didn't disappoint."

    Foster is, as probably everyone now knows, the brother of Broadway's Tony-winning former Thoroughly Modern Millie, Sutton Foster.

    LSOH is black comedy at its best. "Though it's inherently funny," notes Foster, Jerry knows how to mine humor. He was careful to get us to base it on reality and truth as opposed to just doing shtick." That came a lot easier, he adds, because "the scope of the show is big. The story and songs fill the space. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman created a master class for anyone interested in writing musicals. From the opening moment, its boom, boom, boom -- one song after another. That lifts us off and we never let up in taking the audience higher and higher!"

    Foster was also honored with a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Actor in a Musical.

    Golda's Balcony's Tovah Feldshuh:
    Tony nomination, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play

    Feldshuh has made a career playing heroic women: three queens of Henry VIII, nine Jews who age from birth to death in an Off Broadway play, a young Jewish woman masquerading as a man, a Brazilian bombshell fielding two husbands in a Broadway musical and such divas as Sarah Bernhardt and fashion doyen Diana Vreeland.

    But, she says, all those roles pale beside her career-defining role as Russian-born, American-bred Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in Golda's Balcony by William Gibson [Miracle Worker, Two for the Seesaw].

    Downtown, in her extraordinarily successful four-month run at Soho's Manhattan Ensemble Theater, and in the move to Broadway, Feldshuh's performance garnered almost unanimous critical acclaim. The tour-de-force is a triumphant return to Broadway where she was absent 13 years.

    Don't think she wasn't working. In addition to her Off Broadway Tallulah Hallelujah! [2001] and recurring roles on TV's Law & Order and the now defunct The Education of Max Bickford, which starred Richard Dreyfuss, she performs in concert. She also played the hip Jewish mother in 2001's hit indie Kissing Jessica Stein as well as having roles in that year's The Believer and Friends and Family.

    Feldshuh, the sister of playwright David Feldshuh [Miss Evers' Boys], made her Broadway debut in her 20s as Terry Sue Feldshuh in the chorus of 1973's brilliant but short-lived musical adaptation of Cyrano starring Christopher Plummer. She went on to do TV [Ryan's Hope and the mini-series Holocaust] and star on Broadway in Yentl, Sarav‡ and Lend Me a Tenor, each earning her a Tony nod for Best Actress - and three Drama Desk Awards.

    "All my roles were women to be reckoned with," she says, "however nothing I've done has been as fulfilling as portraying Golda Meir."

    There was much preparation and, before each performance, still is.

    "In doing my research, I was struck by the fact that Golda was a woman of remarkable intelligence, voracious appetite and untrampled emotional freedom. She was not your sweet motherly or grandmotherly type. She could be a fierce warrior, a lioness. She had no fears because she had a vision and was dedicated to a cause greater than herself. The seminal incidents in Golda's life were the pogroms she experienced as a child of a poor family in Russia."

    She goes all-out to portray the chain-smoking, black coffee-loving Meir. "Golda was a woman who took chances that were extreme. I don't drink much or shoot up. I have a fairly normal life - marriage, kids, no maid. My acting career is an opportunity to explore parameters without living them, but truth is always vital."

    She is extensively made up with body fittings and a prosthetic nose. Since she never smoked, Feldshuh took lessons. She grins, showing her "tobacco stained" teeth. "So far," she adds, "I don't inhale and I'm not hooked. We tried using vegetable cigarettes, but they smelled up the place. It was as if someone was cooking vanilla and marijuana."

    The P.M. was a pretty shrewd character, but her demanding political career had consequences. "It destroyed her marriage and family," Feldshuh states. "She also did her share of fiddling, and not on the roof. One very surprising aspect was the number of lovers she had. Oi vey."

    As a stateswoman, Meir wasn't exactly loved by everyone. "Friendly with everyone in politics actually doesn't work," states Feldshuh. "Golda always tried to take the higher ground."

    Feldshuh won a 2003 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Sole Performance.

    Big River's Jeff Calhoun:
    Not nominated, but who directed this nominee for Best Revival

    When something is unique, it's unique. We're taught it can't be "more unique" or "most unique." But there are exceptions to every rule. And that unique exception was found in the return to Broadway of Deaf West's adaptation of the 1985 Tony Award-winning musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

    A "deaf musical," you say? Hummmm. To say the least, it was non-traditional in the annuals of theater.

    Calhoun [co-choreographer of the Annie Get Your Gun revival and the Tony-nominated choreographer of 1994's Grease revival], who also did the choreography, says, "Mere words can't describe the experience. I looked at it as a new art form. It turned out to be the most rewarding experience of my life and, standing at the back of Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, I saw that audiences felt the same."

    "What made it unique," he explains, "was that you heard language and ësaw' it at the same time."

    Music, dance, voice and sign language were interwoven among nine deaf and hard-of-hearing actors and nine hearing actors, who performed in the spoken/sung word as well as sign language.

    From Deaf West's start in 1990 as the first professional American Sign Language theatre in the West, founder/artistic director Ed Waterstreet wanted to do a sign language musical. "In 2000 it was announced they'd do Oliver! and Ed contacted me to direct. I didn't know what to think. I mean, a deaf musical! I had to give that a lot of thought."

    As the first audience members came, there was reason to worry. "In the first minutes," reports Waterstreet, "some audience members were a bit unsure, but, as they got sucked into the unique rhythms, they became fascinated as the signing and vocals meshed. Soon, they were in another world."

    The show was such a hit that their North Hollywood 66-seat theatre was overrun. Waterstreet and Calhoun immediately began looking to do another musical. They struck the mother lode with Big River.

    Notes Waterstreet, "We found the perfect director in Jeff. He understands my vision of signing and hearing coming together; and, inside, he really developed the skills to make it work seamlessly."

    Not that the end result came easy. "It was scary the first time," says Calhoun, "even more so with Big River. It took hours and hours of rehearsing scenes and songs again and again. We had six weeks of rehearsal and, before that, script preparation. I never realized how much patience I had! In rehearsals, we are only able to use a piano. The orchestra came much later, so it was difficult for the deaf actors to pick up the rhythms from the piano tones."

    Interestingly, adapting the show into a "deaf musical" didn't expand it. "In fact," Calhoun adds, "we made it tighter without cutting anything."

    After their sell-out run, Big River was up-sized and presented for a smash 10-week run at the Mark Taper Forum, where it won six Ovation Awards and five more Drama Critics' Circle Awards, including Best Director and Best Musical.

    Jim Carnahan, director of artistic development/director of casting for Roundabout, saw it at the Taper. After waxing ecstatic to Roundabout's Todd Haimes about how impressed and moved he was, Haimes made the decision to bring it to Broadway for a limited engagement which ended up being extended. [The production has since has run in Chicago.]

    Calhoun says the experience was an adventure in self-discovery. Fittingly, since Big River is an adventure of self-discovery in 1840s America.

    Though he was not nominated in the 2004 Tony Award Director of a Musical category, Calhoun was honored with a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Director.
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    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at ellis@broadwaystars.com





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