When casting the national company of "Crazy for You," Susan Stroman immediately thought of Karen Ziemba for the role of Polly Baker, the feisty farm girl who falls in love with a big-city playboy.
"She's someone who really does sing, really does dance and really does act," says Stroman, the musical's Tony Award-winning choreographer. "The way theater has developed, via the British invasion with 'Les Miz' and 'Miss Saigon,' those pieces are absent of choreography. I think the young talent now develops their craft for the musicals that are around. Dance has not been a part of it. 'Crazy for You' is very difficult to cast because of that."
The national production of the Tony-winning musical of Gershwin tunes continues at the Shubert Theatre through Aug. 22.
Ziemba and Stroman had collaborated a few times previously, including on the hit John Kander and Fred Ebb Off-Broadway revue "And the World Goes 'Round," for which Ziemba won a Drama Desk Award.
"She's truly an unbelievable talent where each aspect of musical theater is as strong as the other," Stroman says. "To me, she's the ultimate Polly. She's extremely funny. She's a Lucille Ball who can dance like Ginger Rogers."
And Rogers just happens to be one of Ziemba's role models. "I wasn't like a Cyd Charisse person," says Ziemba, 35, who began her professional career in the early '80s touring the hinterlands in "A Chorus Line." She eventually made her way to New York, debuting on Broadway in 1982 in "Chorus Line." Two years later, she got out of the chorus and into her first starring role in "42nd Street."
"I never really related to those beautiful glamorous (dancers) like Rita Hayworth or Cyd," she continues. "They were like sassy glamour girls. I liked women like Ginger, like Judy Garland, who had a little something extra. They could really pour on the tears but they could be funny. Ginger was beautiful but she was a little offbeat."
The Missouri-born, Michigan-raised Ziemba was introduced at an early age to the worlds of music and dance. Her grandmother had been an opera singer with New York City Opera; music always filled the house. Her mother loved dance and enrolled Ziemba in dance lessons. "My mom always wanted to dance," Ziemba says. "She pushed me in that way. She used to watch all of those old movies, so I used to watch them with her. She loved Gene Kelly and Dan Dailey."
Ziemba breaks into a wide smile. "The person I would like to meet is Gene Kelly," she says. "He's a very sexy person, but the fact he could also swoon a woman through his dancing. . . . There's something very special about that."
Speaking of swooning, Ziemba recalls one of her favorite moments in "Crazy for You": when James Brennan, as Bobby Clark, sings the hauntingly romantic "They Can't Take That Away From Me."
"Fred Astaire sang it in the film 'Shall We Dance,' " Ziemba says. "The way we do it in our show, I am just standing there. I am not facing him and I am hearing this beautiful orchestration. It is just so sexy. It's wonderful and romantic. I just love standing there and listening to him sing."
"Crazy for You" is the third national tour that has brought Ziemba to Los Angeles. Two years ago, she was part of the ensemble of "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" at the Shubert and last fall she reprised her performance in "World Goes 'Round" at the Henry Fonda. Ziemba has signed to do "Crazy for You" for a year with Brennan, who she says is her favorite dance partner. The two tapped together on Broadway for a year in "42nd Street."
Ziemba admits touring can be a double-edged sword. "If the company enjoys being together every night, working on the road can be a lot of fun and very satisfying. If people don't get along it can be difficult."
On the plus side, she says, "You get to experience all different types of audiences in every city that you go and experience just being in a different place. It's very difficult to get a chance to do a show like this, a role this wonderful. If the role doesn't open up in New York, you have to go elsewhere. I am excited about doing the show here."
And she's enthusiastic about learning more about her craft. "I think the older you get, the better you can get," Ziemba says. "In my case, I just keep trying to soak up as much as I can. When I come home from a show, I really like to have American Movie Classics on TV. I can sit in the evening, have a light meal and watch a good old movie. I learn so much from watching those old films."