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Stage Preview: Three Pittsburgh actors come back home for PMT's 'Hello, Dolly'

Friday, April 12, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

How's that lyric go -- "It's so nice to have you back where you belong"?

Tom Rocco, Lenora Nemetz and Michael McGurk star in the Pittsburgh Musical Theater's "Hello, Dolly." (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

It's true. Pittsburgh grows and exports a lot of actors, but they usually return. So welcome back Tom Rocco and Michael McGurk, joining Lenora Nemetz and company at the Byham to stage "Hello, Dolly!" for Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

It's a reunion, of course, even though they come from different acting generations. When Nemetz was at the CLO in 1988 doing "Funny Girl," Rocco was actor-in-residence and McGurk, only 11, was rehearsing to play a Munchkin in "The Wizard of Oz." The youngster followed her around a lot: They joked that he would someday be her backup dancer in a nightclub act, a la Roxy's "Me and My Baby" in "Chicago." And Rocco has known Nemetz even longer, for 20 years.

Last week, all three took time out from goofing around before rehearsal to sit down one-by-one for interviews at PMT's West End Valley base.

Lenora Nemetz

Nemetz bubbles with good news. Before talking about "Dolly," she announces she has a new show, the stage musical version of "Some Like It Hot," starring Tony Curtis as the eccentric millionaire (Joe E. Brown in the movie). Starting in Houston in June, it embarks on a national tour, heading hopefully through Pittsburgh toward Broadway.

No contract has been signed, and the Houston producer isn't ready to release casting, but even though Nemetz has had a veteran performer's share of last-minute disappointments, she's confident. Indeed, considering her personal ups and downs over the years -- on stage, she's always up -- she has never seemed happier or more self-assured.

 
 
'Hello, Dolly!'

WHERE: Pittsburgh Musical Theater at Byham Theater, Downtown.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; through April 21.

TICKETS: $10-$34, students half-price; 412-456-6666.

   
 

Her "Some Like It Hot" role is Sweet Sue, the head of the all-girls' band, "and I have a big number in Act 2, all about Chicago, which is fun." She laughs: "I can never get away from 'Chicago' " -- referring to the Kander and Ebb musical in which she played both leads in the original Broadway production.

She's also high because she's just emerged from a difficult time. Returned home last summer from a successful national tour in "Cabaret," she broke her foot. While recovering, she didn't get cast in the movie of "Chicago," as expected, and she had to drop out of PMT's own "Chicago" in January. But she says losing the movie proved a blessing, because when her father died in December, she was here with him and her family.

She invokes the performer's mantra: "Things always happen for a reason. ... Not doing either 'Chicago' left time for me to go inward, to help my dad and myself. I had been on tour for a year and a half; I really needed those six months."

As to "Hello, Dolly," surprisingly she's never been in it, and she's seen it only once, with Joanne Worley. She also recalls seeing the movie at the Warner Theater and wondering why they cast the too-young Barbra Streisand: "But she had beautiful clothes," she adds satirically.

Nemetz's Dolly will be more appropriately in her 40s. And if you're wondering just how old she is herself, she has a favorite response: "My age is none of my business" -- a very Dolly sentiment.

Gavin Pamer directs, Jeff Howell plays the man she determines to marry and Sharon Shaller and Angela Bloomquist play Irene and Minnie. Nemetz remembers doing "Carnival" with Bloomquist at CLO -- "I think she was 9 and she smoked a cigar on stage."

Although she wishes PMT rehearsed longer than two weeks, she says Dolly fits her fine: "There's a lot of me in her." Anyway, whatever real life may bring, "I don't think there's anything tough about being on stage for me, ever. It's where I belong, where I'm most comfortable."

Saying that, she sounds more comfortable in her own life, too. So, is she ready for marriage? (Unlike Dolly, who's a widow, Nemetz has never been married.) "I don't know yet! I just broke off a relationship because it was long-distance, too much baggage. ... I never wanted to get married before, except once, almost."

Once she wanted to be a suffering artist, "sad and troubled." But now, "I love life. Before, I used to run away from my fears; now, I work through them. ... It's time to move on."

Tom Rocco

Rocco likes where he is now, too. Most immediately, he's happily at home with his parents, Dominic and Dolores Rocco, North Siders transplanted to Mars, and he loves being surrounded with friends and family, of which he has plenty, being the youngest of seven siblings.

Performing with PMT and Lenora feels good, too, since it's a natural extension of his years at the Playhouse and Point Park, from which he graduated in 1988. As an undergrad, he played Smee opposite Don Brockett's Hook and Seymour opposite Linda Gabler's Audrey in the Professional Company's "Peter Pan" and "Little Shop of Horrors," which convinced Charles Gray to hire him for the CLO, where he got his Equity card. He's also reunited with PMT founder Ken Gargaro, whom he first met at Pitt, before he even went to Point Park.

"I feel I got a got a great education at Point Park," he says. "The approach to the craft was all-encompassing -- it set you up to understand the hard work as well as the glory. I have a hard time with actors who can't roll their sleeves up. Even when I had a lead, if it was my turn, I still had to drive the van."

The chance to work with Lenora attracted him to "Dolly." "She's brilliant. When you study or work with her, it's like a laser beam. ... Being on stage really is a lot like playing tennis -- the better your partner is, it raises your game."

In the largest sense, Rocco is happiest at having built a life that goes beyond theater. He owns a house on Long Island that he shares with two dogs and his long-time partner, Matt DeLuca, a school teacher. He grows tomatoes in the summer, "just like my father." He bowls. ("I love to bowl. You kidding? I'm from the North Side!") He says all this is as important as theatrical success.

His most visible success so far is a several-year run in the Broadway and touring companies of "Tommy," in which he understudied Uncle Ernie. He did a national tour of "Chess" and he thinks he's done every possible non-speaking role on "Law & Order." Edie Cowan, original choreographer of "Little Shop" who directed it at the Playhouse, calls him to do Seymour occasionally: Last summer he was part of her company that rehearsed "Little Shop" as a living exhibit at the Smithsonian.

Although theater work has been scarce since Sept. 11, "I work enough to be comfortable, pay my mortgage and have enough control of life to enjoy it." He hopes that colleagues, "even those who don't know me from a can of paint, will say, 'he was nice and he worked hard.' You develop a reputation, even if you don't know it. If I'm honest in my own life, that's the little ripple I cast into the world."

Michael McGurk

McGurk is the only one of these three willing to state his age, because, of course, he's only 25 and looks 18. A Bethel Park native, he graduated from Seton La Salle in 1994 with two Kelly Awards under his belt, then got a 1998 degree in musical theater at the Boston Conservatory. He's worked with good regional companies -- Goodspeed, Denver Theater Center, North Shore Music Theater -- and made his Broadway debut as a lead dancer in Susan Stroman's revival of "The Music Man," understudying Tommy, the lead juvenile.

It was exciting to work with Stroman "at the top of her career, just after 'Contact,' just before 'The Producers.' " He's upset that "The Music Man" is embarking on a second-class, non-Equity national tour, so those many roles won't be available to Equity actors, just to kids fresh out of school who haven't turned pro.

He finds looking young works both for him and against him in casting, though being short is usually negative -- at 5-foot-7, he's considered short for a dancer. But that didn't matter for "Music Man," where they wanted individuality. Since that closed in December, a casualty of 9/11, McGurk has had a national commercial to pay the bills, and this summer he expects to be at the West Virginia Public Theater and maybe the Sacramento Music Circus.

Having moved up in regional theater from ensemble to roles, his next goal is to do the same on Broadway. Stroman encouraged him, and he quotes Gregory Hines: "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." So he's preparing himself.

That preparation started long ago at the Center for Theater Arts in the South Hills, then continued at the CLO Academy ("I was there from day one, way back in '89"), then as a CLO Mini-Star. He won the best-actor Kelly for "My Favorite Year," and wouldn't it be wonderful if that was revived in New York? -- "But I hope that's in five years, when I'm old enough to play the lead."

He says, "Everywhere I go, Lenora sticks in my head. She was such a role model growing up. She doesn't just sing and act and dance, she really shows you how to perform. She's bigger than life; she projects to an audience -- a quality lots of Pittsburghers have."

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