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TV Preview: Pittsburgh dancer has foot in 'Fosse' special

Wednesday, January 23, 2002

By Jane Vranish, Post-Gazette Dance and Music Critic

Like any devout Pittsburgher, Rachelle Rak is watching the Steelers playoff game on television -- in her New York apartment. But soon she'll be watching herself on the tube via Dance in America's presentation of "Fosse."

It's a collection of legendary choreographer Bob Fosse's signature works, a show that ran on Broadway for more than three years and captured the 1999 Tony Award along the way.

 
 
"Fosse"

Presented by: "Great Performances"

When: Tonight at 9 on WQED/WQEX.

   
 

Rak was in on "Fosse" from the beginning, working her way up from chorus to featured performer before the show closed last August. On tonight's broadcast on WQED/WQEX at 9, she will be featured in "I Gotcha," a Liza Minnelli number performed with a Tina Turner flair.

The "Fosse" cast already has had a private screening of the show. "It felt kinda like a high school reunion," Rak recalls. "There were quite a few of the original cast left, and we knew that this performance was going to be forever. I still get chills thinking about it." The show was filmed live at Broadway's Broadhurst Theater, bolstered by the return of Fosse greats Ben Vereen and Ann Reinking.

"It was very intense at the end," she explains. "We spent three weeks cleaning and breaking down everything and performing at night. Physically it was difficult -- 'shoulder blades back, pelvis forward, knees knocked.' It's the opposite of everything I learned in dance. But I couldn't think of better material to do."

Besides, her mom had taught her that "you have to adjust. Make it work. If the stage falls in, jump over the hole." A tapper "like Ann Miller," mom has run the Rosalene Kenneth Professional Dance Studios in Green Tree and West View for years. Kenneth was Rak's primary teacher, except for summer trips to New York to study with pros such as Phil Black.

Like any serious aspiring Broadway performer, Rak went to audition for "Cats" when it came to Pittsburgh. She was hired and, with Kenneth's blessing, set out on a national tour at age 17, noting that "I had to take a personal day to attend my graduation."

Rak would subsequently tour in "Smoky Joe's Cafe" and "Sunset Boulevard." Almost 10 years later to the day, she made her Broadway debut in "Cats," singing "McAvity." "Fosse" followed, with Reinking directing and the original Fosse girl, Gwen Verdon, with her trademark voice shaking: "Ra-a-k. Give me a bigger hip ro-o-oll."

These days, Rak is rehearsing for the big Trevor Nunn revival of "Oklahoma!" with the choreographer of the moment, Susan Strohman. "I've never seen anyone build a musical like she does," says Rak. "You don't have to have the highest kicks. Like Bob Fosse, she uses your strength -- those are the greats."

So these days she's "a happy girl. I'm exactly where I belong. I get to do what I love to do." As Kenneth tells her, "You were never one of those girls, crying on the end. You wanted to be there. You didn't want to leave. And your smile was as big then as it is now."

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