At 6 years old, Blake Stadnik was diagnosed with a form of juvenile macular degeneration that left him legally blind by his next birthday.
In the meantime, he learned how to command a stage. And now at 24, Stadnik is using all his theatrical talents as he takes on the role of Billy Lawlor in "42nd Street," which is being performed at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Billy is a romantic character requiring an actor with an exceptional background in tap dancing and singing. Stadnik more than fills the bill, having learned to adapt to any limitations that come with impaired vision.
Stadnik has Stargardt disease, meaning the light-sensitive cells in his retina have deteriorated, particularly in the area of the macula, where fine focusing occurs. His vision, he said, is blurry and he has blind spots and trouble seeing colors.
Despite the symptoms, he has learned to navigate the stage.
While actors can jot down notes from a director about where to stand and walk on stage, Stadnik has to remember the directions, practice the movements and keep it all in his head. He can't recognize faces, but he can see shapes. So he can detect where the other actors are and pick up somewhat on their body language, which helps serve as his stage cues.
As with all productions that he is part of, Stadnik gets his scripts enlarged so he can read his lines — though the type is still blurry, he can make out enough — and understand the stage movements. And he starts working on his character a month before rehearsal.
But while he is making these accommodations, one things seems to come with ease — his natural dancing ability. He doesn't seem to have a problem with the footwork.
Stadnik, who is from Pittsburgh and graduated from Penn State's musical theater program, has also performed as Marius in North Shore Music Theatre's production of "Les Miserables," Claude in Maine State Music Theatre's "Hair" and Pittsburgh's Civic Light Opera's "Mary Poppins" and "Man of La Mancha."
After being diagnosed with the disease, Stadnik's parents wanted to keep him from becoming sedentary, but they knew he needed an outlet other than sports. His mother recognized his love for dancing, since he seemed to start moving whenever he heard music, so she signed him for tap dancing lessons.
"It just clicked," Stadnik said by phone from the show's stop in Portland, Ore. "I don't know if I'd be doing this without my condition. It's actually been a blessing in disguise."
During his studies at Penn State, Stadnik said, he had teachers who were very accommodating and willing to help him study roles.
"42nd Street" appealed to Stadnik when he learned that Randy Skinner was choreographing the show.
Skinner choreographed the Broadway musical's revival in 2001, and his credits include "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," "State Fair" and "Ain't Broadway Grand." He has been nominated three times for Tony Awards.
Stadnik said the show further resonated with him when he learned that during its revival, it opened after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. All the shows on Broadway had closed, but Broadway officials reopened "42nd Street" to offer performances for those who had lost family, friends, colleagues and helped others during the devastation.
"They left the theater smiling," Stadnik said. "I hope people leave this theater smiling. If we can add joy to anyone's life, then that's the greatest work we can do."
In "42nd Street," he helps deliver the story of a young dancer named Peggy Sawyer, who leaves her Allentown home for New York to audition for the new Broadway musical "Pretty Lady." Stadnik's character promises to help Peggy secure an audition. When the leading actress breaks her ankle, Peggy takes on the role and becomes a star.
The Broadway classic, which is marking its first tour in 10 years, premiered 35 years ago. The long-running hit has won a Tony for Best Musical and scored another Tony for Best Revival in 2001.
"It's just such a feel-good musical," Stadnik said. "You have hits from the 1930s, and it's just infectious."
IF YOU GO
What: "42nd Street"
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays until Nov. 22
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Tickets start at $29