Pittsburgh's own Lenora Nemetz still dancing — this time in 'Half Time'
Pittsburgh's Lenora Nemetz is having a senior moment.
More like 150 of them.
That's the running time of “Half Time,” the Broadway-bound musical now in its East Coast premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., in which the 68-year-old Nemetz has nailed the role of funky Fran, a member of a golden oldies hip-hop dance group performing at half time at basketball games.
Gotta dance? Gotta, says Nemetz, and has been since her childhood days on the North Side. “I don't remember when I started walking and talking, but I do remember always singing and dancing,” she says.
It has carried her far from Broadway to beyond as she preps for her current part in “Half Time “ based on the 2008 documentary “Gotta Dance,” a true-life tale of the NBA's New Jersey Nets' ageless hip-hop dance team.
It's a full-time gig for Nemetz, but then there's rarely been a hole in her schedule over the past 50 years. Nemetz puts the funk in Fran, an aging hipster with hip-hop moves that bely her age. “Dancing is in my blood,” she says. “It's the gift.”
It's all in her stage presence, which the actress has evinced as a protege of the late great choreographer/director Bob Fosse, who cast her as Velma Kelly, replacing Chita Rivera, in Broadway's “Chicago.” Indeed, she performed both lead roles — standing by for Gwen Verdon, portraying the other lead of Roxie Hart — in one day.
It is one day she will always remember, she claims with pride. Theater,” she says, “brings out the gypsy in me.”
You don't have to tell that to stage legend Patti Lupone, with whom Nemetz starred in the 2008 Broadway revival of “Gypsy.” Nemetz portrayed Mazeppa, the stripper who understands the value of a good gimmick to get along.
It is pure talent, not gimmicks, that has sustained the 50-year career of Nemetz, a woman of many parts including roles opposite Peter Allen and New York City Opera performances in “The Pajama Game.” Nemetz earned a Drama Desk Award nod for her work in the Broadway production of “Working.”
But she always finds herself working her way back to Pittsburgh, starring in numerous productions staged by CLO, Pittsburgh Musical Theater City Theater and the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Indeed, they're putting out the local welcome mat for her once more: Nemetz will be starring in the CLO production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” from Aug. 7 to 12, at the Benedum Center.
“I love Pittsburgh,” she says of the city she left for New York at age 18 but has never left in spirit. “There must be a spiritual connection,” infusing what she calls her “spiritual journey.”
On the road, back at home, the music never stops. Hip-hop happy? “Who'd of thunk that I'd be doing hip-hop” at this age, she says with a fond laugh.
But Nemetz has much in common with the kinetic moves she performs on stage. “This show is about hope and courage, a celebration of life!”
Living it up beside her on stage are such co-stars as Andre de Shields, Georgia Engel and Donna McKechnie, with direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell (“Kinky Boots”).
Nemetz wraps herself in her hip-hop character but concedes the role is “a complicated challenge. It's not easy to do it.”
But, no problem, no complaints, she adds with a smile in her voice: “I'm strong. And exhausted.”
Michael Elkin is an award-winning features writer and playwright as well as novelist.