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By Sylviane Gold
Getting a featured dance role on Broadway can feel a lot like winning the lottery—and we all know how often that happens. But the thing to remember is that people do win. Adam Fiorentino, now Bert in Mary Poppins, and Marcy Harriell, the current Vanessa in In the Heights, hit the jackpot by taking over for the performers who originated their roles. Nobody sets their sights on Broadway singing “I wanna be a replacement.” But you won’t hear Harriell or Fiorentino describe themselves as anything but lucky.
Harriell, who had moved to Los Angeles after playing Mimi in Rent, had not even seen In the Heights when she was asked to try out. Fiorentino, an Australian then living in London, had already auditioned to follow Gavin Lee as Bert when Lee left the West End production to open Mary Poppins on Broadway (“On Broadway,” Feb. 2007). For each, the challenge of getting the role would pale beside the challenge of learning it.
For Fiorentino, a tapper from age 4, there was the showstopping “Step in Time” number, which has Bert tapping his way along the stage, then nonchalantly going horizontal to dance all the way up the side of the proscenium and continuing to tap—upside down!—when he gets to the top. Harriell, who started ballet at 14, gets to stay more or less perpendicular in In the Heights, but she does have to get through “The Club,” the extended dance number in which Vanessa rips up the floor at a Latin nightclub.
“Gavin Lee was an incredible Bert,” Fiorentino says. “I wanted to see the bits that really worked and adapt it to the way I do things.” But the director, Richard Eyre, put him on notice: “He said that I shouldn’t under any circumstances watch the show again.” Eyre’s bottom line was simple, Fiorentino says. “If people say, ‘You’re doing it exactly like Gavin,’ we’ve done the wrong thing. All we’d be doing is imitation, instead of building a character. They wanted me to bring Adam Fiorentino to Bert.”
Harriell didn’t have to contend with having seen the performer she would be following. By the time she’d finished up a television commitment in L.A. and returned to New York to start rehearsing, Karen Olivo, whose dancing as Vanessa had won her an Astaire award, was already working on West Side Story. So Harriell’s introduction to the role was provided by Olivo’s understudy, Krysta Rodriguez. Michael Balderrama, the dance captain, taught Harriell the routines, and after a few days he was joined by Luis Salgado, Vanessa’s onstage dance partner in “The Club” and also Andy Blankenbuehler’s assistant choreographer for the Latin numbers. “He started me with a salsa lesson,” Harriell says.
Fiorentino learned his part from associate director Anthony Lyn and resident choreographer Tom Kosis. Eyre and the associate choreographer, Geoffrey Garratt, came from London for the last week, and Matthew Bourne’s co-choreographer, Stephen Mear, arrived to give notes. Fiorentino says he was not intimidated, at first, by the “Step in Time” tricks. “I’ve been bungee jumping,” he says. “I thought, ‘If I can jump off a bridge, I can do this.’ But training myself to tap upside down was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You’re working against gravity. I was doing everything that was foreign to my body.”
Harriell says that because she dances with a partner, the key was learning to respond to his cues. “Beyond getting the steps, I have to listen to where his hand is telling me to go,” she says. She also had to learn the geography of the stage, with its multiple moving couples. “It took a couple of weeks not to be scared I was going to hurt someone, then a couple more to really feel comfortable.”
But comfort means different things to different people. For Fiorentino, the stress of following the Tony-nominated Lee was alleviated by the fact that the Mary Poppins team wanted him to do “Adam’s version of Bert” rather than “a paint-by-numbers” replica. But Harriell liked that she was fitting herself into a preexisting puzzle: “It’s great to be involved in the creative process. But it’s also stressful for someone like me, because I’m very opinionated, and I say what I think. Not everybody is cool with that. But if the show is already set, it’s set. No stress.”
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
Photo: Joan Marcus, Courtesy Mary Poppins