Growing up in the Detroit suburbs, Karen Ziemba dreamed of becoming Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, Judy Garland, and Shirley MacLaine. And that, more or less, is exactly what happened.
In her current role in Contact, just now transferring to Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater from a sold-out run at the Mitzi Newhouse, KZ (a coinage of her director and pal Susan Stroman) is allowed only to act and dance--but two out of three isn't bad, and her singing talents have already been displayed in dozens of musicals and on TV and CD. And who would have the breath left for a song after Ziemba's dizzying dream ballet in Contact?
Coming after a brief curtain raiser, Ziemba's piece "Did You Move?" is the one that tips the audience off that this three-act dance-piece-that-feels-like-a-musical is something unique. We're in a gaudy Italian restaurant in 1954 Queens, and Ziemba, the long-suffering wife of an uncouth and overbearing husband, escapes her confining marriage with an exuberantly choreographed dream life. Soon the whole joint is in a terpsichorean uproar, with waiters spinning, busboys pirouetting, patrons tangoing, pasta flying--all at the beck and call of her character's vivid imagination.
"It's like the merry villagers are taking over the world; that's how it feels when we all start dancing together," the friendly, articulate Ziemba tells me the morning after the first preview at the Beaumont. "I have this restaurant of people just joining me in my glee and my joy. It's so much fun." She doesn't miss the vocalizing, and neither, it seems, does the audience. "I feel that so much can be conveyed through movement and through expression. Each person has the ability to move in such a way that it enhances the story that's being told," she explains. "It's very strange how it's working so well. You think, well, you have to say something, you have to sing something, but it's really being told without that. People come away saying, 'My God, it's so clear what's going on.'"
The role seems tailor-made for Ziemba, and very likely it was. "I think Susan had a lot of stories in her head. She was thinking of a period from the '50s, and it started to be, I believe, a Rat Pack sort of thing. Then it started to generate into something about this woman, and I suppose it began to be about her because she is such a strong character. And I'm sure that because I'd worked with Susan for over 10 years, she just thought, 'Well, I guess KZ's going to be able to make something out of this.' And it did suit me."
The KZ-Stroman connection stretches back to And the World Goes 'Round, the Kander and Ebb revue-retrospective that won Ziemba raves and a Drama Desk Award. But her career goes back another decade from there, and a crowded decade it is, with highlights including: Peggy in 42nd Street on Broadway, and later on tour; Morales in A Chorus Line's national company; Alice in Teddy and Alice; Cleo in The Most Happy Fella at New York City Opera; star turns in Allegro and Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 for Encores!; Roxie in Chicago and Polly in Crazy for You, on Broadway and on tour; Agnes in the Off-Broadway revival of I Do! I Do!; and Rita in Steel Pier, the high-profile Kander-Ebb flop of a couple of years ago that is looking more and more worth a second look.