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By Lauren Kay
Elegance and humor don’t often come in one package. But in a rehearsal for a Chicago production of the musical Animal Crackers last fall, Mara Davi, a porcelain-faced Broadway triple threat, had both on display. She skimmed the studio floor, punctuating regal walks, floating turns, and sharp foot flicks with goofy mugging, her doe eyes shining with a mischievous twinkle. And her resemblance to the Hollywood legends she idolizes, like Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell, seemed striking.
The Goodman Theatre’s production was the first opportunity for Chicago audiences to experience Davi’s trademark blend of nostalgic sophistication and modern finesse. But Davi has been honing her style on tour and on Broadway for years. Recently, it earned her a leading role in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas—a part she understudied in Boston in 2005.
“I’ve hired Mara for four period shows,” says Randy Skinner, the production’s choreographer. “From the first moment I saw her, I noticed her understanding of the golden tap era. Her love and knowledge of that time shows in her dancing.”
Although she had already begun taking dance classes at age 3, Davi says her grandfather fostered her fondness for classic movie musicals and their inimitable style. “When we visited him, we’d watch Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon over and over, ” Davi says. “I fell in love with their intangible magic. I wanted to sing, dance, and act like that, so I decided on musical theater.”
Davi, who grew up in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, moved from a local studio to the more rigorous Academy of Theatre Arts in nearby Englewood. There she studied ballet, tap, jazz, acting, and singing. Tap proved her forte. “I love the rhythm, how grounded, down and dirty tap is,” she says.
In high school, Davi focused on school musicals, putting her dance classes on hold. When she attended California State University, Fullerton, she returned to the studio with a reinvigorated purpose. “I was ready to focus on technique,” she says. “I had to start back at the beginning with basics: stretching the feet for higher relevés, finding my center in a single turn. Revisiting skills like that can be humbling and make you stronger.” Davi persisted, with her eye on a professional future that would demand a strong technical foundation.
Her diligence stood her in good stead. “Sometimes tappers only dance below the knees,” Skinner says. “But I always think of my numbers as swing or jazz or ballroom—with tap shoes on. Mara is able to dance in any of those styles, put her tap shoes on, and not lose any part of herself or her wide range of training. Her whole body is involved with the movement.”
While in college, Davi auditioned in Los Angeles for a tour of 42nd Street, jumping at the chance to practice her tryout skills. “I had tried out for The Music Man and got cut immediately,” she says. “This time I had a new goal: making it past the first round!”
However, she did more than that: She nabbed the lead, Peggy Sawyer, and the chance to perform the show’s challenging tap choreography. In the spectacular title number, Davi swept onstage with fast and furious shuffles. Then she accented her soft-shoe back essences with peppy shoulder juts and a gentle, flirty sway of the hips. Her wrists flicked in tandem with her toe taps as the dancers strutted up a gold staircase. Surrounded by a huge ensemble, she sparkled.
After this star turn, Davi earned a host of roles in traditional musicals, including White Christmas. Then she was thrust out of her comfort zone and into an iconic show—the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line on Broadway. “When I auditioned they told me if I didn’t get my turns sharper and leaps higher, I’d get cut,” says Davi, whose tap chops proved no help in the Michael Bennett choreography. She took the challenge seriously, hiring Tyce Diorio to coach her before her callback. Her efforts paid off, and she won the role of Maggie. “The day I found out,” she says, “I walked onto Broadway and I felt like I owned a little piece of it.”
More roles followed, including taking over the leggy, goofy lead of The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway. Many of her roles took Davi on the road, or to high-profile regional productions like Animal Crackers. Now that she’s back in New York, Davi continues to work her technique, taking class with tap masters, including Ray Hesselink, at Broadway Dance Center as well as jazz-based musical theater dance, voice, and acting. And she continues to evolve as a performer with a range beyond the period shows that have served as her home for so long.
“I’ve been influenced by movie-musical stars, by that class and elegance that’s somehow still sexy,” Davi says. “But eventually you come up with a style of your own. I haven’t mastered it yet, but I’m taking charge of it.”
Lauren Kay is a NYC dancer and writer.
Photo by Eric Y. Exit, courtesy Goodman Theatre