Accepting a Tony Award for her performance as a fantasy-prone dancing housewife in the 2000 musical, “Contact,” actress Karen Ziemba thanked her parents for all the ballet lessons they’d given her as a child. Those lessons, she said, “really paid off this time.”
But as anyone who saw her in “Contact” knows, it wasn’t just the dance lessons. In such now-classic Broadway musicals as “Crazy for You” and “Chicago,” Ziemba has proved again and again to be a triple threat: someone who excels at singing, dancing and acting.
“It’s all about storytelling,” Ziemba explains. “If you love the character and want to tell her story, it doesn’t matter what form you do it in.”
Currently, Ziemba is expressing her affection for Mabel Pritt, the wisecracking dance teacher in the new Broadway musical “Never Gonna Dance.” Inspired by the 1936 Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire RKO film “Swing Time,” the show features a cast of 25 and such Jerome Kern standards as “A Fine Romance” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” Now in previews at the Broadhurst Theatre, it’s scheduled to open Thursday.
Set in 1930s New York, “Never Gonna Dance” features Mabel Pritt and Alfred Morganthal (Peter Gerety) as the slightly older, slightly wiser pals of the show’s central couple, vaudevillian Lucky Garnett (Noah Racey) and dance instructor Penny Carroll (Nancy Lemenager). And romance is apparently contagious. Singing, dancing and smooching with Gerety as they rehearse one of their scenes, Ziemba’s Mabel warms up to down-and-out former financier Morganthal as if he were Prince Charming.
“Karen has a great rapport with audiences because she has a great rapport with the other people on stage,” “Never Gonna Dance” director Michael Greif says a few weeks into previews. “Karen brought a terrific combination of experience with this kind of material and a great openness to working and experimenting with the other actors.”
That’s particularly true of her work with Gerety, a stage and film actor in his first Broadway musical. Ziemba’s been performing on Broadway for two decades and, Gerety says, she’s a great teacher. “I’m on a very fast learning curve because of her, and I’m very grateful for that. We both realize that if we’re not having fun, the audience certainly won’t. We are, and they do.”
Ziemba drew her inspiration not just from “Swing Time,” the movie that spawned her character (and which was, at one point, even called “Never Gonna Dance”), but from other ‘30s characters played by such actresses as Rosalind Russell and Eve Arden. “They were role models for me in trying to figure out who Mabel was,” says the matter-of-fact dark-haired actress. “She’s the kind of woman who makes the joke before the joke’s made on her. She knows the score, but she also has a heart of gold.”
Offstage, Ziemba has the same warm and animated manner she has onstage. Such naturalness is one of the qualities that makes Ziemba so sympathetic, says “Contact” choreographer and director Susan Stroman. “When Karen’s dressed in normal clothing, she doesn’t look like a dancer,” Stroman says. “I think that’s why people are so attracted to her. They think that perhaps if they go home and shut their eyes, they’ll be able to dance around their kitchen like Karen Ziemba.”
Not likely. Michigan-born and -raised, Ziemba started dance lessons at 6 and was performing with a local ballet company by the time she was in junior high school. In her sophomore year at North Farmington High School, she played her first musical theater role -- Maria in “West Side Story” -- and after that, she wanted to do more than just dance. “When you’re singing a score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and speaking Arthur Laurents’ words, you realize there are so many ways to express yourself as a performer. I had to do the whole shebang.”
Not long after college, she headed to New York, where she made her Broadway debut in “A Chorus Line” in 1982, then went on to perform in such musicals as “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” and “42nd Street.”
Much of her work in recent years has been for Stroman, who had her on roller skates and playing a banjo in “And the World Goes ‘Round,” scaling a tower of chairs in “Crazy for You” and exhausted in a dance marathon in “Steel Pier.” “Karen is a fearless performer,” Stroman says. “That’s why she’s loved by directors. She’s not afraid of taking a chance. She’s not afraid of stumbling.”
After two years in “Contact,” dancing full-throttle for nearly half an hour eight times a week in its “Did You Move?” segment, Ziemba added more nonmusicals to the mix. In 2001, she played in Alan Ayckbourn’s “House” and “Garden” at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester and last year she took a well-reviewed turn as Beatrice in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in Hartford, Conn., and Washington, D.C.
‘A tough broad’
It was her portrayal of Mac the Knife’s bad-girl consort, Lucy Brown, in “The Threepenny Opera” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer that indirectly led to her new role in “Never Gonna Dance.” Greif, who was directing a different show at the festival, saw her performance and thought he just might have his Mabel.
“I’d seen Karen be wonderful in so many things,” Greif says. “It was seeing her play Lucy Brown, which was such a deliciously other side of her. She’s a realist, a tough broad with a great sense of humor, and I thought, ‘Wow!’ A realistic woman is really what we’re looking for.”
Ziemba and Gerety work so well together, adds choreographer Jerry Mitchell, that he and Greif have done considerable restaging during previews to enhance their first major scene together. The lighthearted Kern tune “You Couldn’t Be Cuter,” which was still in the show during early previews, has made way for Kern’s more romantic “The Song Is You.”
Ziemba didn’t seem to mind that she had to rehearse one song in the afternoon and perform another at the theater each evening. “Because it’s done live, you have to rise to the occasion and make this new dialogue seem as if you’ve been saying it for weeks,” she says. “But that’s what it’s all about -- doing what will work better and be more fruitful for the telling of the story.”