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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Sarrah Strimel of 'Catch Me If You Can'

Catch Me If You Can's songwriter Marc Shaiman to New York magazine: "Gorgeous, leggy girls...we have some of the most gorgeous on Broadway." The show's director, Jack O'Brien, to the Wall Street Journal: "[Choreographer] Jerry Mitchell asked for the ten most beautiful women he could get into the rehearsal room. And he managed to find them." Shaiman's co-writer, Scott Wittman, to Playbill: "We have, I must say, ten of the most beautiful girls on Broadway."

Sarrah Strimel, one of those terrific ten: "I look in the mirror and say, What were they thinking?"

Strimel recalls the first time she and her fellow Catch Me catches rehearsed the fan-dance number "Butter Outta Cream." She kept dropping her fan or turning it the wrong way. "Jack O'Brien just shook his head and put his face in his hands and was like, 'You are the worst showgirl,'" she says with a laugh.

O'Brien was being facetious, but the 5-foot-11 Strimel claims, "I'm actually really bad at being a showgirl, because I'm awful with props. I'm a notorious klutz. My friends call me Baby Giraffe, because I can't walk down the street without tripping or whacking my head on a tree."

Nonetheless, the Catch Me If You Can team was not the first to put her in a showgirl-type ensemble. Strimel's first two Broadway shows, The Producers and Young Frankenstein, were directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman ("who loves her leggy women," says Strimel), and she's played chorines in such shows as 42nd Street and Minsky's regionally. Strimel's last Broadway appearance was a departure, though: rocking out to 1980s hair metal in torn, metal-studded skankwear. "I love doing the showgirl thing, being the classy, pulled-up glamour girl of the period," she says. "But doing Rock of Ages is who I am inside. I got to unleash!"

Strimel took over for original cast member Katherine Tokarz in the Rock of Ages ensemble last spring and stayed with the show till it wrapped its run at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre right after New Year's (it has since reopened in the smaller Helen Hayes Theatre). In 2009, Strimel worked on two new musicals that had their world premieres in southern California: Sammy, a biographical musical about Sammy Davis Jr., at San Diego's Old Globe, and Minsky's, set in the Depression-era world of burlesque, which played the Ahmanson in L.A. Her earlier regional parts include Bombalurina in Cats at Theatre Under the Stars in Houston and Stupifyin' Jones in Lil Abner at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House.

It was The Producers that really got her career going. Strimel first auditioned for the show, then casting its original Broadway production, right after she graduated from high school. She had her Equity card thanks to a season at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and was rarin' to go, if not exactly well-schooled in how to conduct herself at an audition. "I had really white blond hair and too much makeup on," she says, and her song choice, "Nobody Does It Like Me" from Seesaw, "was more appropriate for someone auditioning for the dirty old lady in The Producers, not the beautiful showgirl."

She didn't get a part, but, unbeknownst to her, she made a good impression. A couple of years later, she was contacted by Tara Rubin's office, which had taken over casting for The Producers from the late Vinnie Liff. Rubin still had Strimel's headshot, with Liff's positive comments written on the back. They invited her in, and four auditions later she had a role on the second national tour. Strimel dropped out of college in fall 2003, five credits short of graduating, to join The Producers. The following year she moved onto the first national tour, and after doing the show in Japan she made her Broadway debut in The Producers in 2006. She was in the final cast as the show completed its six-year, Tony- and box-office-record-breaking run. And then the Producers creators cast her in their next Broadway project, Young Frankenstein, which ran for over a year.

Which all sounds great...but it's not the way it was supposed to happen. Strimel was supposed to make her Broadway debut in 2005 in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. She'd left the Producers tour and turned down a role in the Producers movie when she was cast in Chitty, rented an apartment in New York and was excited about making her Broadway debut in the original cast of a new musical. Except two weeks into rehearsal, she was fired. They'd made a "casting mistake," the director and choreographer told her, stressing that "it's not you, it's us—our mistake."

She would be replaced in Chitty by a short dancer who could be partnered and lifted much more easily, so apparently they truly had reconceived the role. But as soon as Strimel got down to the street upon leaving the rehearsal studio after the firing, she "collapsed in a heap" sobbing. She stayed in bed for four days, watching 24 DVDs, and her parents had to drive in from Pittsburgh to get her back on her feet (she says she also was motivated by 24's "badass" hero Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland).

Today, six years later and with multiple Broadway, tour and regional credits under her belt, Strimel can tell this story without bitterness or sorrow. "It's a business, and sometimes it has nothing to do with you as a performer or as a person," she says, noting that the experience "made it easier somehow to go to an audition and get cut or not get cut." Though she feared at the time that "I'm never gonna work again; this is going to be like a scarlet letter forever," she has since found out that many people working in theater have a similar story. She hasn't encountered the director and choreographer who fired her again, as they'd come over from Britain, where Chitty originated. But, she points out, "even if I was around them auditioning, it would be a completely clean slate. This is what the business is: You pick yourself up, and you can't take anything too personally and you can't have a chip on your shoulder.

"I'm just grateful every day that I get to do what I do," she adds. "I don't hold anything against anyone." In discussing how her attitude has changed as she's matured, Strimel describes a mind-set that many consider vital for sanity and survival in this often frazzled business. "I'm much more centered in my life and in owning who I am and what I'm doing," she says. "When things happen at work, which they do every day, it used to seem like, 'Oh, my god!' Now it's more like, 'Okay, I'm going to breathe... It's not a big deal, we're doing a show, you're lucky you're here.'"

That insight has her facing her next potential hurdle without concern: Strimel is "looking down the barrel of 30" but undaunted by that milestone birthday coming up in November. "It's kind of awesome," she says. "I think 30's going to be the best!"

After the Chitty heartbreak, Strimel immediately went back on tour with The Producers. The next year, she was on tour with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which was directed by Jack O'Brien and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, just like Catch Me If You Can. O'Brien, says Strimel, "is the most brilliant man I've ever had the pleasure of sitting in front of, let alone working with. Aside from his expansive, incredible career that spans every genre, he's the smartest man. When he speaks to you, he's able to get his point across directorially but also he just teaches you so much. He references, like, Pirandello, and half the time we have our iPhones and we're Googling as he speaks."

As for choreographer Mitchell, Strimel also raves about "the experience of learning from Jerry and the joy he brings to each number." And because he deploys a variety of "concepts and movement vocabulary, sometimes it feels like I'm doing a different show in each number, and I have a certain affinity and joy for each one."

The ensemble of Catch Me If You Can is called the Frank Abagnale Jr. Players, as they serve as the singers and dancers on the imaginary variety show through which Abagnale (Aaron Tveit) presents the story of how he passed himself off while still a teenager as an airline pilot and then a doctor. So Strimel and the other showgirls back Tveit up on almost all his numbers, often dressed as stewardesses and later nurses. "If I had to say, my favorite would be 'Doctor's Orders,'" says Strimel, "'cause who doesn't want to be a sexy, hot nurse dancing around?" (She also wears the not-so-sexy costume of a bottle of glue in a couple of scenes.)

Dancing alongside Strimel in the Frank Abagnale Jr. Players are Angie Schworer, whom Strimel understudied as Ulla in The Producers on Broadway, and Rachelle Rak (the second-ever Gypsy of the Month, in April 2005), who years ago taught classes that Strimel took at Rosalene Kenneth Dance Studio, the Pittsburgh-area studio run by Rak's mother and attended by Strimel as a child. "They taught me how to tap dance and how to sell a number, have stage presence," says Strimel, who grew up in Wexford, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Her father, who now heads a box manufacturer, used to be CEO of Clark, the candy company that's a Pittsburgh institution. He also coached college football, and Sarrah says she learned to "always give 120 percent" from him. (In return, she was a tap-dancing Clark Bar in a parade when she was young.)

In dance class from age 3, Strimel was initiated into theater with a grade-school role as Aunt Polly in a Tom Sawyer play. After ten years training at Rosalene Kenneth's, she left the studio and dance-competition scene for conservatory-like training at Pittsburgh CLO. She took modern and ballet classes every day and also studied voice at CLO. At age 13, Strimel won both the Junior Miss Pittsburgh and Young Miss Pennsylvania pageants, tap-dancing in the talent portion, and was first runner-up for Young Miss America (beaten by Miss Michigan). When she was 14, thanks to that tap training by Rak and Kenneth, Strimel was cast in an adult production of Crazy for You at Pittsburgh Musical Theater (then known as Gargaro Productions). She would go on to do additional shows and train with Gargaro. She also performed throughout high school with CLO's Mini Stars troupe. One of her fellow Mini Stars was Courtney Mazza, seen last on Broadway in the Chorus Line revival and more recently in the tabloids having a baby with Mario Lopez.

While training in Pittsburgh with kids who lived in the city, Sarah Strimel the suburban girl thought they were so much cooler. After she met a Sarrah who told her that's the Native American spelling of the name, Sarah Strimel became Sarrah Strimel. In her teenage angst, she was convinced "this will totally make me stand out, it's so sassy." After more than a decade of putting up with misspellings, she says, "Now I think it's more confusing than it is cool." Sarrah is the name she joined Equity under—though her father likes to have fun and write it with at least 20 or 30 additional r's.

During her senior year, Strimel won the Gene Kelly Award—which honors high school theater in the Pittsburgh area, where the namesake movie legend was from—as Best Supporting Actress, for her performance as Anita in West Side Story. She missed out on her senior prom, though, because she was by then performing professionally with CLO. Strimel appeared in five CLO shows during the 2000 season (the summer following her senior year), starting with Evita, which featured Judy McLane in the title role and Chris Diamantopoulos as Che. That summer, she and Mazza played two of Reno's Angels in CLO's Anything Goes, a production that starred Carolee Carmello as Reno Sweeney. Strimel returned to CLO after her freshman and junior years at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, performing in South Pacific, Brigadoon, Bells Are Ringing, My Fair Lady, She Loves Me, Annie and Funny Girl. The summer after her sophomore year, she worked at St. Louis Muny, appearing in A Chorus Line, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, among other musicals.

Strimel was in her senior year in the musical theater program of CCM when she departed for the Producers tour. Though she didn't get a diploma from CCM, Strimel did find a best friend there: classmate Kearran Giovanni, who's now in the Catch Me cast with her. They were also cast together in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (which was Giovanni's Broadway debut).

Strimel is godmother of Giovanni's three-year-old daughter, Jordan. She counts other gypsies among her best friends, including Sara Schmidt of Jersey Boys and Ashley Amber, who the Gypsy of the Month from Promises, Promises last June. "We all harmoniously get along and are each other's biggest cheerleaders," states Strimel. "There's no competition between us." Last year Strimel moved farther up the Upper West Side from the 78th St. brownstone that had been her first home in NYC and where, over her years there, "on any given night you could find girls from four or five different Broadway shows on my steps, hanging out when the weather's nice, maybe having a glass of wine."

Another favorite way to relax for Strimel is yoga, which she's been doing for a while but has gotten serious about in the past couple of years. "It's kind of changed my body and changed how I look at things too," she says. "In the business, you're going so quickly every day, it's very high-stress, so [it helps] to be able to focus your mind and breathe in a yoga class." She now takes a class every day, usually the high-impact power yoga ("'cause I'm super type A"). She's studied yoga with a shaman in Tulum, Mexico, and would like to get certified to teach. In early 2010, when Strimel had her longest period of unemployment as a professional performer, she moved temporarily to Philadelphia and worked at the Lululemon yoga-clothing store there.

Surfing is also a hobby of Strimel's. She learned to surf from a friend's boyfriend while visiting them in southern California while on tour with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and now goes out to Long Beach, Long Island, regularly in the summer. She's also taken surfing vacations to such places as Cocoa Beach, Fla. These other pursuits don't mean Strimel is mulling any kind of career change. On the contrary, she says of working in musical theater: "I love this more today than when I first started. It's more exciting to me now. I'm constantly in awe of what we're doing and creating." But, she adds, "I'm also able to understand now how important it is to have your personal life and cultivate other things that you love."

Photos of Sarrah, from top: in Catch Me If You Can, on the right, with Angie Schworer and Aaron Tveit; when she went on as Ulla in The Producers on Broadway, with Tony Danza (left) and Hunter Foster as Bialystock and Bloom; left, in Rock of Ages with Dee Snider (center) and Katie Webber, who's also in the Catch Me ensemble with Sarrah; in the 2009 Broadway Bares benefit, with John Carroll; one of her earliest showgirl gigs (left) and this spring in Times Square (right); playing Mrs. Pugh in Annie at Pittsburgh CLO in 2003; with her best friend Kearran Giovanni in costume for their college production of The Boys From Syracuse.

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