Five-time Emmy Award nominee Georgia Engel is spending some time in the Windy Cityand we are privileged to have her. Discovered for television after a Broadway career, she played Georgette Franklin Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show for five years. Later, she received critical praise and consecutive Emmy nominations on Everybody Loves Raymond and had a recurring role on Hot in Cleveland.
She returned to the stage for the musical The Drowsy Chaperone, with Sutton Foster, and is now rehearsing for a new musical.
Gotta Dance is a brand-new show about professional basketball's first ever over-60 dance team. The show not only stars Engel but Stephanie Powers from TV's Hart to Hart, Andre De Shields from The Wiz, and Lori Tan Chinn from Netflix's Orange is the New Black. The creative team reunites the Kinky Boots' dream team, including Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell as director and choreographer.
Windy City Times caught up with Engel recently at the theater where she is set to perform.
Windy City Times: Hi, Georgia. First where did your interesting middle name, Bright, come from?
Georgia Engel: It's a family name.
WCT: Did you always want to be an actress?
GE: I wanted to be a dancer, as a little girl. My dad was an admiral in the Coast Guard so we moved all over the United States. I was born in Washington, D.C. When I was going to public high school, I tried out for a high school musical. I was taking ballet class twice a week; I got the part that all of the little ballerinas were trying out for. It wasn't because I was a better dancer, but I just had a natural sense of comedy.
The head of the school, Mary Day, is famous for making world-class ballerinas. She offered me a scholarship to the school, with the understanding that I would never be a ballerina; she thought the dance training would be very helpful to me. She wouldn't let me be in the ballets at night with my friendsshe would send me over to be in the musical comedies. At that age you want to fit in and be with everyone else, so it was hard. In retrospect, I can see how kind and wise she was to steer me in a direction where I have more aptitude.
WCT: That is what a great teacher does. With so many roles over the years, is there one that stands out?
GE: This last summer I had a thrill of a lifetime being Annie Baker's John. She wrote that for me. Anybody in the world can act better than I can, but she wrote this magical low-key character for me. When someone writes something for you, it fits like a glove and is written to your strengths.
[This year] and 2016 are really big years for me because Bob Martin wrote this role in Gotta Dance with me in mind. It wasn't a guarantee that I could do it like Annie's was, but it worked out.
WCT: Lois Smith from Steppenwolf was in the John show.
GE: Yes, and Christopher Abbott. There was also a young actress, Hong Chau, who was starting her career and it was her first play. That is much like this show where the mature actors work with the very young actors. There is such a sense of giving back and forth.
WCT: Did the younger members of the cast ask for advice from the seasoned performers?
GE: Yes; Colby Lewis did. He plays a cad of boyfriend to one of the cheerleaders. He asked me for help with the timing of something. They were still working on his speech so I told him to be confident. The next day they sharpened it so now he gets a laugh out of it.
WCT: Talk about your character in Gotta Dance.
GE: The character's name is Dorothy/Dottie. She is a kindergarten teacher. We find out in the course of the show that she really loves hip-hop. It speaks to her because that is what she sees her baby kids doing! She wants to communicate with them.
WCT: Did you study any hip-hop artists?
GE: No, but I have had plenty of wonderful teachers both from the documentary and Nick Kenkel, our [co-]choreographer. He's been teaching me.
WCT: Jerry Mitchell is doing well with these musicals, like Kinky Boots and On Your Feet, so this new one may be even better.
GE: He is so amazing. He takes a person's part to show them the possibilities and we are just howling. He knows the characters better than we do.
WCT: What is the theme of Gotta Dance?
GE: For me, this show is about overcoming and not accepting limitations. I had retired from dancing because it was no longer easy for me. I dance for over 50 years, but when Bob wrote such a delicious part it was worth all of the pain of doing it again.
WCT: Isn't that funnyhow life has led you back to the dance world?
GE: I know, and I started out wanting to be a dancer!
WCT: What are you working on after the show?
GE: Oh my goodness. When you come into Broadway, you can't even think beyond it. You have to completely focus on that. These past two years have so full, with John and Gotta Dance, that I haven't had a chance to think ahead. Even if they were the climax of my career, what a way to go out!
I would love to be like my friend Betty White, but not that many people can do that. She is raising the ceiling for all of us!
Gotta Dance cuts a rug now through Jan. 17 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. Visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com or call 800-775-2000 for tickets today.