GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Rachelle Rak of 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels'

Normally, a young woman would take offense at being called trashy. For Rachelle Rak, though, it's a favorite anecdote that she proudly, cheerfully tells.

Because it was Gwen Verdon who said it, the first time she saw Rak perform the sexy number "I Gotcha" in Fosse. Verdon's exact words: "She's great! 100% trash." The crew later had a T-shirt made for Rak with the quote on it.

Having Verdon tell her (more than once) that "Bob would have liked you" didn't hurt either. Especially since Verdon, who served as artistic advisor on Fosse, and Ann Reinking, the co-director, had initially doubted Rak was right for the show. Many of her castmates had been in Fosse productions or in the Fosse workshops. "A lot of people knew the style; I knew nothing," Rak says. "I was in five numbers, because Ann had to use me. I was learning, I was in the background." On the dance captain's advice, Rak attended every rehearsal, dancing along on the sidelines to numbers she wasn't even in. As Reinking and Verdon gained confidence in her abilities, she was given more parts to understudy. And as the show continued in its two-and-a-half-year run on Broadway, she was put into more and more numbers. When Fosse was filmed for PBS in 2001 (it's now available on DVD), Rak was the lead dancer in the Liza-originated numbers "Mein Herr" and "I Gotcha" and Ben Vereen's partner for "Razzle Dazzle."

No wonder, then, that Rak—nickname: Sass—says, "Fosse changed my life." Yet she already had more than a decade of tours and Broadway shows behind her when she got into Fosse. She's currently appearing in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, her sixth Broadway credit. She's one of the ladies who, wearing only a towel, sing the postcoital ditty "What Was a Woman to Do?" And a cowgirl in the hoedown led by Sara Gettelfinger's Oklahoman oil heiress (a role Rak understudies). Plus a maid in John Lithgow's villa, a ballgown-clad hotel guest, and the female half of the pas de deux at the end of "The More We Dance."

Last year marked Rak's first year away from the Broadway stage since 1998, though she did perform in all three Encores! productions (Bye Bye Birdie, Can Can and Pardon My English). She spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh, her hometown, where her mother—who'd been a professional hoofer and cabaret performer—still runs the Rosalene Kenneth Dance Studio. Rachelle was two and a half when mom Rosalene started taking her with her to the classes she taught. "That was my babysitter," says Rak. By the time Rachelle was 6, her mother knew dancing would be her life. "I never wanted to leave the stage."

As a child, Rak performed at the Civic Light Opera and other theaters in Pittsburgh; then, when she was a senior in high school, auditions were held in Pittsburgh for the national tour of Cats. "My mom said, 'Go. Go for the practice. Learn about what this is.' We were just excited that I went. My mother thought maybe one day I would do one show." That day came sooner than expected: Rak was cast as a swing, and hit the road at age 17. And at age 17 she played old Grizabella, one of the roles she covered. It took Rak nine years to get to New York. After touring with Cats, West Side Story, Starlight Express for an extended period (including two years in Germany, where she sang in German) and Sunset Boulevard (starring Diahann Carroll), Rak made her Broadway debut in 1996 in—what else?—Cats, as Bombalurina.

From the longest-running show in Broadway history, Rak went on to some musicals with notoriously brief runs. In 2001 there was Thou Shalt Not, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Once again, Rak's virtue was called into question, and once again, she's laughing about it now: When Kate Levering got sick and her understudy was injured, Stroman hesitated to make Rak the new Therese Raquin understudy because "she didn't think I could be innocent enough," Rak says. "At the beginning Therese Raquin did a ballet, it was very innocent, and then she turned into the vixen. Stro thought I'd be the vixen the whole time." She learned the part in nine days and went on in the role to everyone's satisfaction. (Stroman was impressed enough with her wholesomeness to cast her in 2002's Oklahoma revival, even though Rak herself feels she didn't belong in that farm-girl ensemble. "They were all blond, blue-eyed, and there I am," she says. "Stro said, 'You're the only girl that's been to the big city.'")

Another flop was the Burt Bacharach revue The Look of Love, probably the last Broadway musical before Good Vibrations to receive a unanimous hatchet job from the critics. It lasted 49 performances. But that was no trauma compared to what Rak had already experienced with the show: At one late rehearsal, just a couple of months after she'd had surgery to repair a torn hip flexor, she fell 12 feet down an on-stage elevator shaft. Her chair for "What's New, Pussycat?" had been placed too close to the elevator's edge, and when she sat down, the chair—with her on it—plunged backward. She blacked out for a few minutes; when she came to, her legs were bloodied and she was being strapped to a gurney. But four days later—with a fractured rib—Rak went back into rehearsals. More than anything, she didn't want to give up her big number, "24 Hours From Tulsa," which she headlined, backed by a male chorus.

Coping with adversity was something else Rak had learned from her mother. As much as her young daughter stood out talent-wise, she never coddled Rachelle's ego or tolerated complacency. "She was always a realist," Rak says. "She knew that even if you work hard it doesn't mean you're going to get a break. The way she thought, it kept me grounded. I was never the best, never the prettiest. It was always 'you did a good job,' 'you could work harder.' I remember once I sat in a competition all day and I didn't win anything. My mom said nothing. A lot of people would say, 'You should have... That was wrong.' She said, 'How are you?' I said, 'I'll get 'em next time.' It was always like, you've got to accept it."

Rak feels indebted to her mother not only for the dancing but for the mind-set too. "Everything is because of her, and because of being inspired to follow your dreams," says Rak. "And whenever you fail, whenever you don't get it, to get up and not beat yourself up. And to never think that you're the best and always work to be better. Dance training never ends. Every day you prove yourself again. You have a bad day, it doesn't matter what your résumé is. You have to be on your game...it's like going through an interview every day of your life. It takes heart and never being defeated. I always go back to what my mother said: 'Learn to adjust.' It's always a work in progress."

Just like her mother, Rak has become a mentor to younger dancers. She teaches in programs run by Access Broadway and Dance Educators of America (including Fosse workshops), and at her mother's school when she's back in Pittsburgh. She recommended one of her mother's former students, Paul McGill, to Scoundrels choreographer Jerry Mitchell when he told her he was looking for a young, thin, acrobatic male dancer for La Cage Aux Folles; McGill, at 17 years old, is now a La Cage swing. Rak also sees great professional-dancer potential in her teenage niece.

As for her own future, Rak is hoping to get more television work. She takes acting lessons and has appeared on the soap operas Another World and Guiding Light and in a Fosse-esque eBay commercial directed by Sam Mendes. Even during her dance-centered childhood, Rak wasn't limited in her activities. She competed in the Miss National Teenager pageant, winning the speech portion for her essay on "What's Right With America." And she was a guard on her school basketball team from sixth through 12th grades—which is why she played Sally Bowles on a sprained ankle in high school.

GYPSY OF THE MONTH is a new feature on BroadwayWorld that turns the spotlight on ensemble members. Click here to read the inaugural profile, March's Gypsy of the Month, T. Oliver Reid of La Cage Aux Folles.

Middle photo: Rachelle and fellow ensemble members, to her left, are charmed by John Lithgow in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels [photo by Carol Rosegg]. Bottom photo: Rachelle with her mother and dance teacher, Rosalene.

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