WAGNER COLLEGE THEATER HIRES BONA FIDE BROADWAY BABE: TONY WINNER MICHELE PAWK
By JODI LEE REIFER
Staten Island Advance
Thursday, October 7, 2010
STATEN ISLAND, NY — Michele Pawk isn’t ashamed to admit it: She’s a thief. But she’s only taken from the best, says the Tony winner, and now the actress is ready to share the spoils with the nationally acclaimed Wagner College theater department.
“I sort of feel like I’ve really been blessed in my career to work with amazing artists, directors, choreographers,” she says, ticking off marquee names such as Hal Prince, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall.
“If I could steal from them all these years and pass the information along to the Wagner students then I’m thrilled to have the opportunity.”
Pawk, who won the 2003 Tony for featured actress in “Hollywood Arms,” has joined Wagner as a full-time faculty member. She is teaching advanced acting, directing and film studies — a move the school hopes will strengthen its already esteemed theater department.
The program consistently ranks as one of the five best college theaters in Princeton Review surveys. Specializing in Broadway musicals, the department presents three plays, a dance show and four fully-staged musicals each academic year. In 2010, the program fell to Princeton Review’s No. 5 spot after having occupied the No. 3 slot last year.
“Michele has worked with the best of the best,” says associate professor John Jamiel, head of Wagner’s acting program. “Together we will be moving the performance level and the training track to the next level so we can continue to remain competitive with schools like NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Marymount, Point Park, the University of Michigan.”
Wagner opens its Main Stage season this week with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” (Editor’s note: See show preview and full season schedule at the bottom of this page).
Come May, Pawk will direct the season finale, “Seussical,” the musical based on several of Dr. Seuss’s most famous books. In 2000, she originated the role of brassy Mayzie LaBird in “Seussical’s” Broadway debut.
It’s a perfect show for college students and audiences of all ages, says Pawk. “They’re not just stories for kids,” she says. “They’re compelling, universal stories.”
To be sure, Pawk’s work in “Seussical” planted the seeds of her relationship with Wagner. She co-starred alongside Wagner alum and Drama Desk-nominee Janine LaManna, who portrayed the lovestruck Gertrude McFuzz.
The pair talked about Wagner among other topics. A while later, on an audition, Pawk struck up a conservation about the school with Wagner alum and Tony winner Randy Graff. Pawk, who teaches privately in a Manhattan studio, and master classes at universities across the country, told Graff she wanted to do more teaching.
“I love working with students that age, in their early 20s. They’re so eager, so hungry,” says Pawk, 48. “They’re like sponges. They’ll try anything.”
Plus, there was the convenience factor: Wagner is only a half-hour from Pawk’s home in South Orange, N.J., where she lives with her 10-year-old son and actor husband, Tony nominee John Dossett, currently in “Mamma Mia!”
“I know this sounds — what’s the word, too good to print — but I’m really sort of at a place in life where I feel I need to contribute. I felt the need to give back, maybe it’s presumptive to think that I have something to give back,” says Pawk, displaying the modesty that has become a calling card.
Born in Butler, Pa., a tiny town just north of Pittsburgh, Pawk attended Allegheny College, before earning her bachelor’s of fine arts degree at the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. After, she spent a year working in a musical revue at Disney World, before moving to Los Angeles. She sang in gay bars to make a living, while scoring appearances on TV shows such as “L.A. Law,” “Quantum Leap” and “The Golden Girls.”
On the latter, she played an extra cheerful motivational speaker who appealed to Betty White’s Rose character, who in turn dragged Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty’s Dorothy and Sophia to hear the pep talk.
“Talk about a master class in four different styles of comedic acting,” says Pawk, laughing.
But New York was calling. She landed her Broadway debut in the short-lived musical, “Mail,” before making her mark as a dancing comedic villain in 1992’s Ira and George Gershwin-inspired “Crazy for You,” for which she was nominated for a Drama Desk Award. From there, there were roles in the hit revivals of “Merrily We Roll Along” (1994) and “Chicago” (1996) and “Cabaret” (1998).
Pawk uses the word “bliss” to describe the experiences. “I was so enthralled by those actors,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to get to work every night.”
Sam Mendes, perhaps best known for his work in film (“American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road”), directed Pawk in “Cabaret” and gave her one of her most memorable pieces of advice.
“One day, in passing, he says, ‘Don’t be afraid to take your day on stage with you.’ You are where you are as a human being. Sometimes really being honest with what you are will change the journey. It will be different in a way, but equally as truthfully.”
In 2002, Pawk worked with the legendary director/producer Hal Prince (“The Pajama Game,” “Fiddler on the Roof” “Sweeney Todd”) on “Hollywood Arms.” She won raves and the Tony as an alcoholic mother in the play adapted from Carol Burnett’s memoir, “One More Time.”
“That man was in his early 70s and he bounded into the room like a 17-year-old boy,” says Pawk of Prince.
Enthusiasm is one of the most important traits actors can possess, she stresses to her pupils. “You have to absolutely love what you do every day, whether it’s theater or nursing or some sort of business employment. And if you’re lucky enough to make a living at what you love to do, you’re doubly blessed.
“The other thing about this career that I’m trying to impart to them is: This is a career where you never stop learning. You never stop taking classes. You never make it. You continue to challenge yourself, a lot of times by surrounding yourself with great people.”
SHOW PREVIEW: IF THE SLIPPER FITS ...
‘Cinderella’ runs through Oct. 17 on Wagner’s Main Stage
Wagner guest director Drew Scott Harris leads the cast of “Cinderella” — the inaugural production of Wagner College Theater’s Main Stage season — beyond the fairy tale aspects of this Broadway standard.
“Drew asked us to think about how we would react in real life when we deal with the emotions of the play,” said Jill Butterfield (Cinderella).
Harris, who helmed “Beauty and the Beast” last spring on Wagner’s Main Stage, has directed over 150 plays on and off Broadway, including the Broadway production of “Ain’t Broadway Grand,” for which he was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Direction.
Among the “Cinderella” cast members are seniors Butterfield, Regan Featherstone (Prince Charming), Jacqueline Nuzzo (Godmother), Sal Pavia (Herald), Michael Dineen (Chef) and Sammi Cohen (Stepmother).
“Cinderella” goes up Oct. 7-9 and 13-16 at 8 p.m., as well as Oct. 9 and 16-17 at 2 p.m. Tickets for Friday and Saturday night and matinee shows are $27, general admission; $25, seniors and students; $16, Wagner students and $18 for children. Tickets for Wednesday and Thursday night shows are: $23, general admission; $22, seniors and students; $14, Wagner students and $16 for children.
COMING SOON: THE 2010-2011 SEASON SCHEDULE
Wagner College Theatre at One Campus Rd., Grymes Hill, will present four musicals, three plays and a dance program in the 2010-11 season. “In these difficult economic times, we want to offer Staten Island audiences an affordable option for their family to enjoy a night at the theater. Many of these shows will appeal to children as well as their grandparents,” says Felicia Ruff, chairwoman of the college’s theater department.
The curtain will go up on the following main stage musicals:
- Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic retelling of “Cinderella,” Oct. 6-9 and 13-17.
- The adult comedy, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Nov. 17-20 and Dec. 1-5.
- “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a nostalgic revue featuring the songs of Leiber and Stoller, Feb. 23-26 and March 2-6.
- “Seussical,” based on the works of Dr. Seuss, April 13-16 and 27-30 and May 1.
This more intimate setting will present three plays & a dance showcase:
- Lanford Wilson’s romantic drama “Burn This,” Oct. 12-17.
- Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” set in 2010, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1-5.
- Theresa Rebeck’s satirical comedy “Loose Knit,” March 1-6.
- “The Dance Project,” original choreography, April 26-30 and May 1.
Main Stage tickets range from $14-$27. All Stage One productions are all $5. For tickets and subscriptions, call the box office at 718-390-3259. Visit THIS SITE for more information.