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'Anything Goes' actresses see success coming their way

Saturday, August 12, 2000

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Is this what it was like watching Gene Kelly dance at Pitt or Dan Marino throw passes at Central Catholic?

  Courtney Mazza, left, and Sarrah Strimel may only be 18, but both actresses have had plenty of stage experience. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Or is it more like looking over Andy Warhol's shoulder at Carnegie Mellon, or spotting Christina Aguilera on the "Mickey Mouse Club?"

Just when can you look at young talent and predict stardom? Marino and Kelly were sure bets, if any such bet were ever sure. Warhol and Aguilera were long shots. And there are others for whom stardom is predicted but never arrives.

Somewhere near the sure-bet end of this spectrum is where you'll find Courtney Mazza and Sarrah Strimel, a pair of extraordinary 18-year-old Pittsburghers appearing unusually young in the CLO ensemble. You can still catch a sight of them through tomorrow in "Anything Goes," where they form half the troupe of show girl "angels."

There's lots on view at the Benedum and not just because the angels are skimpily clad. There's lots especially of Strimel, a tall, leggy blonde ("5-foot-101/2 but 6-foot-1 in character heels," she says) whose whirling dancing and kewpie-funny acting are front and center in several fizzy numbers. Mazza is a brunette, 5-foot-3-inch, delicately featured, with those cheekbones women yearn for. Like Strimel, she was hired as a dancer, but her greater talent is her voice.

Each is a good bet for success, but as a two-hopeful parlay they're irresistible, especially given the contrasts: Call them the long and the short of it, sugar and spice, pepper and salt, suburban and rural. To start, both are gorgeous, even in a business where that's a dime a dozen. But to get where they hope to go, they'll also need talent, persistence and luck, in whatever combination does the trick.

The talent we can already swear to. Their abilities have been on display for years, in high school musicals (Mazza at Pittsburgh's CAPA, Strimel at North Allegheny), at the Kelly Awards (Mazza won as both freshman and senior, Strimel as a senior), as CLO Mini-Stars and elsewhere -- Strimel, for example, in a series of featured roles for Gargaro Productions.

Mazza grew up in Lincoln Place, although the family back yard is in West Mifflin -- "We live on the last street in the city or the first, depending." Strimel is from Wexford. Both will turn 19 this fall, only a month apart, but Mazza finished high school a year earlier, so she's already one step into her future.

Each has aimed at show biz for many years.

"I don't know what I'd do if I didn't perform," says Mazza. This sank in at 6, when she played Molly in "Annie" at CCAC South Campus Theater (directed by Mindy Rossi-Stabler, who later became her teacher at CAPA). Even then, theater was a switch: Mazza had started in gymnastics at 5.

"I've known what I wanted to do forever," says Strimel, "from day one." (As to that double R in Sarrah: "I was bored -- everyone's named Sarah.") To start, it was mainly dance. "Selling a number came naturally to me." As a dance student, performing at "all those church fairs with little tiny stages, you learn how to sell."

You also learn to be self-analytical in this business. "In acting class, it's hard for me to take risks," says Mazza. "My freshman acting teacher was a comedian who brought out a different side of me."

That's at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, where Mazza went after CAPA. "I like school. I really like Philly. But if I had my choice, I'd rather be out on tour or on Broadway. I want to audition a lot this year." On the other hand, "I wouldn't mind spending four years in school -- I wouldn't leave for just anything."

Just clear of graduation from North Allegheny, Strimel's whirling in options. (To put her youth in context, her schoolmate, Aguilera, is just a year older.)

"I've been struggling with going to school [college] or not. I had an offer to do 'Gypsy' at the North Shore Musicals Theater near Boston." That hasn't enticed her, but she has a Broadway audition next week.

"My dad [once] sat me down and asked if I'd be satisfied with being a chorus girl. He also demanded straight As in school." She accomplished the latter, and it helped her win a $25,000 academic scholarship to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music -- "You hear that's the leading musical theater school in the country." Carnegie Mellon University might argue, but "I've grown up in Pittsburgh -- I wanted to get out of the city, be on my own."

"I'm going for intensive training, not for the college experience or parties." To give her options beyond the chorus, she knows she needs training, but "I'm going to take it a year at a time. School's not for everyone.... I'll put myself out there for auditions."

So where would they like to be in 10 years?

"I'd have a recording contract," says Mazza. "That's my ultimate dream." Otherwise, "I'd like a family some day, but my career comes first."

Strimel's dream: "A show on Broadway."

Their CLO experience has been a big step, getting them Equity cards, helping them "learn by sitting in rehearsal and watching people," as Strimel says, "combining that with your natural intuition."

They've come a long way and have big plans, but they aren't leaving home forever.

Both plan to come back next summer -- a little older and a little closer to their dreams.

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