Stepping Out

From the Merrick stage to Broadway

Marissa McGowan's star shines bright

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Marissa McGowan’s exceptional talent is hard to miss in the hottest dance numbers on Broadway in Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Kiss Me, Kate,” a four-time Tony-nominated production. “Kate” marks her fourth Broadway show on a long résumé that boasts the best of the American musical theater songbook. Her remarkable career has taken her all over the country, but McGowan never forgets her roots on Long Island that helped get her to her present home at Studio 54.

It was playing “Annie” in middle school that solidified the Woodbury native’s passion for performing.

“I remember that feeling in having such a big role and leading the show,” McGowan recalls of those days. “That was when I really knew this is what I wanted to do forever.” It wasn’t long before she was cast in “A Little Night Music” at Merrick Theatre and Center for the Arts (formerly known as The Stage) at the age of 16.

“[Owner] Tony Georgan gave me the role of Anne, who is supposed to be 18, but she’s typically played by a woman in her 20s or so,” McGowan says. “It’s not an easy show because of the music or the subject matter. It was memorable for me, especially because not many teenagers get to do it.”

It was fortuitous that in 2010 she would get to revisit the show, this time on Broadway opposite Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

“When I got to audition for Anne’s understudy in the revival I already knew the show very well,” she says. In fact, she knew it so well that at her callback director Trevor Nunn also asked her to try one of Petra’s songs on the spot.

“Because I had done it in Merrick and I had listened to the girl who had played Petra every night, I still remembered it!” McGowan was cast as the understudy for both characters, as well as a role in the ensemble.

McGowan originally landed the role of Anne in Merrick Theatre’s “Music” after having wowed Georgan in a children’s production of “The Little Mermaid” and, later, in “Gypsy.” “That was my first paying acting job,” she says, laughing when she remembers her salary. “I played Ariel for… $20 per show!”

Her time under the sea may not have literally paid off, but it certainly helped when it came to her career. Shows have ranged from Broadway’s “Les Miserables” and “Bonnie and Clyde” to regional productions of “Chess” and “Showboat.” Though she has consistently demonstrated incredible range in all aspects of theatrical performance, “Kate” marks her most dance heavy production. The show has been nominated for multiple Tony Awards, including a nod to Warren Carlyle (“After Midnight”) for Best Choreography.

“I still don’t consider myself a dancer,” McGowan says, despite the fact that as a member of the ensemble (she plays the Wardrobe Mistress), she is an integral part of many intricate dance numbers, including the massive Act II showstopper “Too Darn Hot.”

“Warren Carlyle is particularly great about working with singers,” she says, pointing out that she was hired because of her vocal abilities; after all, she is also the understudy for seven-time Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara (who plays the lead, Lilli Vanessi). “[Carlyle] makes you feel good even if you’re not the best technical dancer, as long as you try really hard and give your entire heart to it. We had a safe rehearsal space where I felt very loved and not judged. It has been a challenge for me to have to dance as much as I do in ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ but it’s good to keep growing and allow yourself to stretch in different ways.”

It is rare for an audience to give a standing ovation mid-show. However, it happens nearly eight times each week at Studio 54 after “Too Darn Hot,” a progressively intense sequence led by James T. Lane and Corbin Bleu. She notes that Carlyle taught the entire ensemble all of the steps, and then “saw what looked good on which people and who he wanted to do each section.”

The acclaimed choreographer (who is currently working on Hugh Jackman’s tour) gave McGowan more moves than she expected. “It has been a lot of fun. It’s a challenge, especially those 12 big jumps every night in ‘Too Darn Hot.’ I have to gear up for them! It’s a really special number. There’s no feeling like at the end of it when the audience goes crazy.”

When McGowan is not bringing audiences to their feet, she can be found planning her September wedding (also a “big production to get on board with!” she jokes), and teaching voice lessons (“I’ve come to understand that giving people confidence is an amazing gift,” she says of her side passion).

For now, the recent Chita Rivera Award nominee is thrilled to be exactly where she is, perhaps finally recognizing her own talent as a dancer with her work in “Kate.” “This experience makes me want to be my best self every day,” she says.

Lucky for audiences, she is incredibly successful in that feat.

For tickets and more information, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.