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By Sylviane Gold
City Center’s Encores! series began 16 years ago, but it was put on the map in 1996, with its production of Chicago. Starring Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking, Chicago created so much buzz that it was moved intact to Broadway and—well, you know what happened.
But the impulse behind Encores! was not to discover new commercial potential in old musicals; it was to revisit them in a theater rather than in a vintage recording. And for everyone who loves musicals, this month’s offering, Fanny, is a milestone: the 50th Encores!
Designed to showcase the seldom-heard scores of great theater composers like Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter, Encores! provides a nice unintended consequence for Broadway dancers: Dozens and dozens of them have been through the Encores! mill, earning dozens and dozens of paychecks, and being seen by an audience of knowing theatergoers who didn’t buy tickets just because they saw a cool number on the Today show.
However, that doesn’t mean that dancers can just show up at the Encores! audition three times a year and figure that their odds of landing a job are improved. Encores! productions go up in 10 days, and that imposes special rigors on the performers. Dancer Mary Ann Lamb, whose Broadway credits include Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Fosse, knows all about working in Encores!, having performed in the very first, Fiorello!, and in enough subsequent productions to be among the most frequent Encores! dancers.
Originally from Seattle, Lamb calls Encores! “summer stock for the A Team.” The rehearsal period is brief and intense, the performances are over in the space of a long weekend. “You learn to work very quickly and make choices fast,” she says.
But because the time commitment is so minimal, Broadway’s top stars and most experienced ensemble performers are happy to moonlight. “You’re working with the best,” Lamb says. And indeed, from Fiorello! on, Encores! has dazzled musical theater fans. I was there for the opening night of the legendary musical about legendary New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and the cast list glittered from A (Adam Arkin) to Z (Jerry Zaks), with Tony winners like Donna McKechnie and Faith Prince in between. The topper? A cameo appearance by Ed Koch, one of LaGuardia’s successors at City Hall.
As gratifying as the elite colleagues, Lamb says, are the original orchestrations. “Nothing is more thrilling than to have the power of that music when you dance,” she says. Encores! also gives her the chance to do roles she wouldn’t get otherwise.
The highlight of her Encores! career, she says, was performing in Promises, Promises for Rob Marshall and doing the famous “Turkey Lurkey”— “one of the most fun numbers I’ve ever danced,” she says.
She notes that much as she’s enjoyed working with the name choreographers, she also relishes the opportunity to help develop the beginners. Among her colleagues in the 1997 production of Promises was a dancer named Sergio Trujillo. In 2005, he was back at Encores! to choreograph A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
And for all the up-and-comers who have nurtured their talents at Encores!, there are also glimpses of dance world stars who show up virtually unannounced. The second Encores! production was the Rodgers and Hammerstein flop Allegro!, which featured an appearance by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by, yes, Lar Lubovitch. John Selya and Desmond Richardson have popped up in Encores! ensembles. And who expected to go to Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and see Jenifer Ringer and Jock Soto of NYCB in a dance choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon? So here’s looking at you, Encores! Can’t wait for the next 50.
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
Pictured: Mara Davi in No, No, Nanette. Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Encores!