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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Vince Pesce of 'The Pajama Game'


Whether you watch television (network or cable), go to the theater (Broadway or regional) or visit theme parks, you may have been exposed to the work of Vince Pesce. His steps—either the ones he dances himself or those he creates for others to do—have been seen in TV musicals, concert halls, regional theaters, an HBO special, Disney World and Hershey Park and, of course, on the Broadway stage.

Pesce, who will turn 40 later this year, is at a crossroads in his career. He expects that the current revival of The Pajama Game will be his last Broadway show as a dancer before he devotes himself full-time to choreographing. He originally signed on to Pajama Game as just the associate choreographer—the tenth or so time he's assisted choreographer Kathleen Marshall—but then Marshall offered him "Steam Heat." How could he refuse? "This was the opportunity to do one of the most famous numbers in theater history," he says. And with that, he was part of his lucky seventh Broadway ensemble.

"It's kind of a transitional time for me," Pesce explains. "Because I've danced a big part of my life and my initial want was to be a performer, I'm overlapping a bit. But I've been dancing much less in shows and doing more choreography. Some people say to me, 'Vince, you should literally stop dancing and just choreograph, because then people will know you as just a choreographer.'"

Pajama Game is Pesce's second consecutive Broadway show as both dancer and associate choreographer to Marshall, following Wonderful Town. He was also her associate for the Little Shop of Horrors revival, as well as Carnival and House of Flowers at City Center Encores! and the TV productions of The Music Man and Once Upon a Mattress.

On his own he has choreographed Tracey Ullman Live & Exposed for HBO and West Side Story at American Musical Theatre of San Jose (starring American Idol runner-up Diana DeGarmo, now playing Penny in Hairspray on Broadway). And his post-Pajama Game calendar (the show closes June 11) is starting to fill up with choreography jobs, including Grease for Stages St. Louis (running July 21-Aug. 20) and The King and I at American Musical Theatre (Oct. 31-Nov. 12). He will also direct and choreograph a September revue featuring his Pajama Game castmate Bianca Marroquin in her home country of Mexico. And he's in talks to serve as associate choreographer (to John O'Connell of Moulin Rouge!) for Enchanted, an upcoming partly animated/partly live-action film from Pixar.

Before Pesce became Marshall's associate, he danced in several shows she choreographed. The first was the Kiss Me, Kate revival in 1999. But they had actually met a decade earlier, when Pesce was playing Mistoffelees and Marshall was a swing and assistant dance captain in the national tour of Cats. In those days, they also performed together in benefits for Broadway Cares. The number they used to do (with another dancer)? "Steam Heat"!

"We didn't remain close friends after the tour," Pesce admits, but they "reconnected" when he was in Victor/Victoria and Marshall was assisting its choreographer, her brother Rob. Pesce later performed in Promises, Promises, Do Re Mi and Wonderful Town at Encores!, where Kathleen was artistic director.

What led to their partnership? "We just clicked," he says. "We had such a love and a passion for musical theater and what it's about, and it's such a big part of us." Marshall, however, remembers precisely what impressed her about Pesce. She knew from their Cats days that "he was a spectacular dancer," but after he became dance captain for Kiss Me, Kate, "I just loved him so much and loved his manner. He's very calm, very smart and very creative."

Since he's been assisting her, Marshall appreciates even more of his talents. "It's a delicate thing to be an associate choreographer: You have to know when to jump in and help. His sensibility and rhythm are just great," she says. "A lot of times when first conceptualizing a number, you need someone to affirm you're going in the right direction or point out whether we need to rethink something, and he's a wonderful sounding board."

Pesce says that after so many shows together, he feels "that we really work as a team." In the early stages of creating, "we'll throw out ideas and write things on a list...whatever comes to either one of us, if we like it, we keep it." There was an extra step in that process when it came to choreographing "Steam Heat," a signature Fosse number. "We sat there and said, 'Okay, how close or how far from this do we need to go?'" Pesce recalls. "We knew we weren't going to do the original Fosse choreography, but we thought, Let's give them a taste of it—the bowler hats, the trio, the suits, one girl, two guys. But then we wound up kind of expanding it. The original was much more machine-like, there were a lot more isolations. We wanted to break out a little more. That's when we start taking our jackets off, we use the 'get hot!' thing more—doing a little bit of a striptease in a sexier kind of way instead of being more androgynous like the original."

Pesce had experience reworking an iconic dance piece, having choreographed West Side Story shortly before Pajama Game went into rehearsal. He describes his approach: "As perfect as Jerome Robbins' choreography is, and as appropriate as it is, I wanted to do my own. I followed his guidelines as far as the storytelling in 'Dance at the Gym' and I just re-choreographed it in my way. I didn't keep to his storytelling in the ['Somewhere'] ballet in the second act. I did much more of a group, kind of this beautiful, ethereal, idealistic world instead of small groups of people the way Robbins did. I wanted to bring everyone out there and have the Sharks and the Jets interact in a kind of non-aggressive, inviting way. I shifted the 'Prologue' too. I danced the Jets a little bit more because I wanted to see them take over the territory, and then I brought in the Sharks."

Pesce did not start choreographing, as some maturing dancers do, so he could make a mid-career switch; he's been doing it almost as long as he's been performing professionally. For four years right after high school, he danced at Epcot Center, and Disney also hired him to choreograph industrials and a show at the MGM Studios park. And for a number of years now, he's been choreographing and helping conceive the revues performed at Hershey Park. While theme parks may be something a lot of performers delete from their resumes as soon as they have a few theater credits, Pesce feels differently. Several Broadway talents, including Tony-winning lighting designer Donald Holder and arranger Kim Scharnberg, are involved in the Hershey production. And he remains proud of what he did at Disney World—and what he learned there.

"Those were my college years; I never went to college. It was great training for me because I learned all different styles of dance and they brought in a lot of choreographers from different places. I was in the World Dancers, who had a show in front of the American pavilion. I wasn't just doing 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah' in front of the castle. I was doing flamenco, czardas, Russian dancing, French cancans, the Greek scarf dance, a Mexican hat dance..."

He's using that knowledge even today as a Broadway vet. "Like when I do 'Hernando's Hideaway,'" he says. "I know the Spanish rhythm and what it's like to do flamenco, and I incorporate that while I'm dancing."

Pesce feels that dancers who are just starting out these days don't necessarily recognize the value of diverse training and experience like he had. It's his No. 1 piece of advice for them. "What I want to say to young dancers is: Learn different styles of dance," he says. "Don't just stick with what your studio does. If you want to be a musical theater dancer, don't just do ballet, don't just do modern, don't just do jazz."

Younger dancers, he adds, also should study, even imitate, past masters. "Look at the old movies, learn the old style of dancing: Jack Cole, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Stanley Donen's choreography," he says. "I see dancers come in who are technically fantastic—they can kick, turn, jump, they can do whatever you want them to do—but there's no style there. What makes Gene Kelly an amazing dancer? Not just that he was a technical dancer, but everything he did had acting [to it]. Fred Astaire, he's not doing leaps, he's acting—everything he does, all of his emotions are tied up into the body. I find that sometimes dancers think it's enough to point their feet really well and kick high, and not enough with the acting."

Pesce speaks from many years of experience—going all the way back to age 12, when he appeared in his first musical, Gypsy, at a local college. He'd started dancing at age 9, his interest piqued by watching his older sister's tap class. Soon after, the Brooklyn Boy was going into Manhattan to study with Phil Black, "so I was taking classes with the Dancin' dancers, the Annie girls..." When Pesce was 12, his family moved to Atlanta, where he danced with two companies while still in school: "Southern Ballet and Atlanta Jazz Theater, which was kind of a musical theater that also did very technical ballets and modern pieces." A choreographer he'd worked with in one of the companies hooked him up with New Orleans' Beverly Playhouse, which was looking for a young male for its Music Man chorus. That show—in which the recent transplant from molto italiano Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, played an Iowan—earned him his Equity card at 16.

He made his Broadway debut in Guys and Dolls after two and a half years on the road with Cats. He was on Broadway throughout the '90s, following Guys and Dolls with Beauty and the Beast, Victor/Victoria, High Society and Kiss Me, Kate. "I loved doing the crapshoot ballet from Guys and Dolls," he says when asked about favorite pieces he's danced. "It was a male number, with masculine dancing that was aggressive and technical and told a story. I remember being on stage thinking, 'Oh, my God. I'm on Broadway. I'm doing Guys and Dolls, one of those quintessential Broadway shows.' And it was such a good production." Kate's "Too Darn Hot" was another fave to dance—"one of those bring-down-the-house numbers that the audience really enjoys."

Between his work on stage and screen, Pesce can drop names with the best of them. Of Victor/Victoria star Julie Andrews, he says: "She's the nicest person on earth. I'm serious. It's not an act. We did a lot of changes with that show, and she went through a lot of stuff with that show, and she always held her head up high and she was regal and inviting. The ultimate pro. There's no attitude, no celebrity entitlement, so down-to-earth. She would talk with us at the back of the rehearsal hall. I was with that show the whole time, over two years, because it was that kind of experience."

As for Tracey Ullman, who asked him to choreograph Live & Exposed (he also performed in it) after working with him on Once Upon a Mattress: "Lovely to work with, and extremely smart and creative and collaborative and clever." Ullman is best known as a comedian, but as she recounts through song, dance and stand-up in Live & Exposed—which was filmed before an audience in L.A. and aired in May 2005—she was a theater gypsy, then a pop star before breaking through on American television. "She's a true triple threat," says Pesce. "Not only is she comically gifted, like we all know, she's an extremely good actress. She has a great, kind of belt voice, and she dances really well."

He's also worked with Broadway darling Kristin Chenoweth, as one of the two dancers accompanying her in concerts that were performed for Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, at the Kennedy Center and with the San Francisco Symphony. And when Brooke Shields succeeded Donna Murphy as Ruth in Wonderful Town, he coached her in the dancing because Marshall was unavailable. Shields got great reviews, even from critics who had questioned the casting of a gorgeous nonmusical actress in a plain-Jane dancing role.

"I dealt with her more from an acting standpoint, like: What are you feeling while you're doing this? How is Ruth getting taken away into doing swing? What parts are important to be accurate, and what parts are not?" Pesce says. "I don't drill like a drill sergeant. I feel like it takes away all the naturalness you're going to bring to it. I let them do their version of it in the style of what we need. You have to respect the actor that way."

According to Marshall, Pesce is "especially great with actors who aren't dancers. So much of choreography and directing is knowing when to give what information to whom, and Vince is very good at layering it in and working the actors at their own pace without judging them."

Marshall does have something negative to say about working with him—sort of. "When you have an associate choreographer who's really terrific like Vince," she says, "the sad part is eventually you lose them. I know there'll be an end of the road because he'll be doing his own projects."

Pesce's breakout out as a choreographer is occurring, sadly, without his most steadfast supporter. His mother—who "took me to all my lessons, six days a week" and "came to all my opening nights"—died of lung cancer in September. A couple of months later, he had to start rehearsing The Pajama Game's ebullient numbers like "Once-a-Year Day." "It's hard having to separate it," he says. "But I can hear my mother, because she was so spunky and so sassy in a way that she'd want me to keep going and not be brought down. To see me do something like 'Steam Heat' would make her very happy."

Photos of Vince, from top: receiving the gypsy robe on opening night of The Pajama Game (he got it for Wonderful Town too); doing "Steam Heat" with Joyce Chittick and David Eggers (right); with Michael McKean, Kelli O'Hara and Harry Connick Jr. on Pajama Game's opening night; with Wonderful Town star Donna Murphy in 2003. ["Steam Heat" photo by Joan Marcus; other photos by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.]

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