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Broadway hit, well-stocked with Pittsburghers, ends with PBS broadcast

Friday, August 30, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

NEW YORK -- "Contact" is a three-course serving of sex and comedy, intensity and grace -- an innovative and popular dance musical created by Susan Stroman and John Weidman with little dialogue and no live music that startled Broadway purists by winning the 2000 Tony Award for best new musical.

    Television Preview


"Live from Lincoln Center," 9 p.m. Sunday, WQED-TV.


Now "Contact" will expire -- live. To cap off its 1,174-performance Lincoln Center run, its final performance Sunday night will be broadcast live on PBS's "Live from Lincoln Center."

It "expires" only on Broadway, though, continuing to live in its national tour (coming to the Benedum, March 25-30, 2003) and abroad. And there are plans for a movie, Stroman to direct.

To mark the end of "Contact's" Broadway run and its debut on national TV, I leapt at the chance to see again a show I love and to interview several leading members of the company -- a number of whom happen to be Pittsburghers.

Unusually for a Broadway run of this length, "Contact" has had only two lead casts, with even less turnover in the ensemble. For Pittsburgh's Tome Cousin, who was in the show's first, tentative, exploratory workshop, "Contact" has been vocation and family for more than 3 1/2 years, in which time, his life has changed -- "totally! I don't even remember the before!"

The first part of "Contact" is "Swinging," a sexy-comic 10-minute appetizer based on Fragonard's famous painting of frolicking 18th-century French aristocrats. Second -- call it the spicy pasta course -- is "Did You Move?" a funny 30-minute drama-fantasy about a repressed wife and her bullying husband, set amid the bustle of a pretentious Italian restaurant. The main course is the 65-minute "Contact" itself, in which a suicidal ad exec rejoins life through the agency of a mysterious woman in a yellow dress and uninhibited swing dancing.

Original leads were Karen Ziemba as the wife, Boyd Gaines as the ad exec and Deborah Yates as the woman in the yellow dress. Those roles were taken over just a year ago -- right after 9/11 -- by Charlotte d'Amboise, D.W. Moffett (since replaced by Alan Campbell) and Pittsburgher Colleen Dunn.

For the performers, it feels odd that a long stage run will end live on TV. "It's great that we'll go out on such high energy," says Dunn. "But we lose the chance to say goodbye to each other on stage." D'Amboise agrees: "You want to give your all, but you have to pull back" so as not to overwhelm the camera. "But knowing me, I won't: I'll be hyperventilating and I'll have to let it out!"

On stage, the two female leads are a study in contrast -- Dunn, an erect, haughty blonde princess as the dance-loving woman in clinging yellow, and d'Amboise, a crop-haired gamine as the woeful wife. Dunn's character is right out of the Grace Kelly/Hitchcock heroine mold -- crisp, classy, unattainable. D'Amboise's is from the Giulietta Masina-Imogene Coca school, the large-mouthed, large-hearted soul crushed by a macho world.

Interviewed in their dressing rooms, though, both stars are beautiful, engaging professionals who could serve as a joint encyclopedia definition of cute and classy.

Known for her high-profile replacement roles on Broadway -- and as the daughter of ballet legend Jacques d'Amboise and wife of Broadway's Terrence Mann -- d'Amboise says there are advantages to replacing, since she gets to pick and choose what she wants to retain, making it her own. "There's no way I could just imitate Karen [Ziemba], Bebe Neuwirth [whom she replaced in 'Damn Yankees'] or Ann Reinking [in 'Chicago']."

In spite of trepidation about transferring a stage show to TV, d'Amboise is pleased that Stroman (even while rehearsing the national tour of "The Producers" for its Sept. 10 Pittsburgh opening and starting work on the London "Contact") helped prepare for the telecast.

Dunn, a native of Forest Hills who says delivering Post-Gazettes between ages 11 to 14 paid for her dance classes, has an unusual relationship to "Contact." She was told Stroman thought of her originally for the role, but a sickness intervened. Then, when she was performing in "Follies," she ran into Stroman on the street and shortly got called in to audition.

Dunn says "Contact" is based on fact: "Stro [as they all call her] was at a Downtown club where a girl in a yellow dress came in and turned down everyone who asked her to dance, and she thought, 'That woman's going to change someone's life' " -- as, in "Contact," the woman does.

Dunn's own life includes a husband and income from an award-winning yogurt commercial (she plays a wife masquerading as a seductive French maid). So as we talked she was uncertain whether to take "another year out of my life" and join the national tour, now on hiatus. "There's a chance of many things," she says with amused detachment, as cool and beautiful as her character.

Just this week, word came that Dunn will indeed tour, which means she will dance in her yellow dress at the Benedum in March. This is a considerably re-jiggered version, expanding an intimate show from Lincoln Center's thrust stage to the proscenium, 3,000-seat auditoriums where tours perform.

Dunn says the message of "Contact" is especially needed post-9/11: "choosing to live -- all we have is each other in this world."

That's like what Cousin says, talking about the emotion of closing "Contact": "I'm very attached to the cast. I've shared so much of my life with them." But reunions are also possible. He marvels that Rob Ashford, who just won a Tony for choreography, was his college roommate at Point Park. And he and Dunn were both in a 1985 "A Chorus Line" at the Playhouse, directed by Danny Herman, who has been in the "Contact" company as a swing since the beginning. Also in the company is another Point Park grad, Rocker Verastique, and Cousin says there are three more Point Park grads in the tour -- contacts everywhere.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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