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Growing up in Seattle in the 1970s and 1980s, Noah Racey always had an answer when adults asked him what he wanted to be. From the age of 3, when his father gave him a toy drum, he planned to be a drummer. As he got older, he got more specific: "Phil Collins, only taller."

But the plan took an unexpected turn one day at Roosevelt High School. "I was humming 'Love Me Tender' in biology class," Racey recalls, "and the teacher said, 'Why don't you audition for the musical?' I said, 'Great!! What's a musical'?"

These days, Racey not only knows what a musical is, he knows how to star in one. As hoofer Lucky Garnett in Never Gonna Dance, he leads a stage adaptation of Swing Time, George Stevens's 1936 RKO musical starring Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and the songs of Jerome Kern. Roger Ehert once judged it the best of all of tire Fred-and-Ginger films. What's more, he called the "Never Gonna Dance" sequence, in which friction seems to have been banished from the universe, "the high point of the Astaire-Rogers partnership."

It is, as they say, a hard act to follow. Which is why Racey isn't trying. He received a tape of the movie (along with Shall We Dance) as a high school graduation gift. "It started my love affair with Fred Astaire," he says. But he hasn't watched it, or any other Astaire film, since he became part of Never Gonna Dance, which is directed by Michael Greif (Rent). From the very start of the project, he says, even at the auditions, choreographer Jerry Mitchell made it clear that he wasn't looking for another Fred Astaire. "It's impossible," Racey says. "It sets you up for dismal failure, to try to replicate an Astaire performance. Jerry was encouraging us to dance from the center of our own being."

That's precisely what Racey was doing a few months back, when the press was invited to a Chelsea studio to watch the company rehearse some numbers from Never Gonna Dance. Tall, handsome, and with a more muscular style than that of the silken Astaire, Racey tapped and mugged and glided through a crisply staged production number, a comictwo-left-feet routine and a ballroom adagio with Nancy Lemenager in the Ginger role. Even as work-in-progress, in rehearsal clothes, their dancing suggested not a pair of Fred-and-Ginger wannabes, but a kind of channeling of the Fred-and-Ginger spirit.

MITCHELL, WHO CAUGHT the essence of '60s dance in Hairspray, could well be on his way to capturing the '30s this time around. "It's an homage," says Racey. "It is a prayer, an offering towards that style. Jerry has an amazing eye and feel for style. And he is this great combination: he comes to the table with an exact vision of what he wants as well as a complete openness to what's happening in the moment."

One of the show's big numbers is "I Won't Dance," in which Lucky arrives in New York on a serious mission: in order to marry his fiance, he has to earn $25,000 without dancing. But every step he takes in the train station brings an encounter with rhythm: the newspaper vendor piling up his wares, 1-2, 1 2; tire ringing bell of the coffee trolley, ding-ding-ding; the shoeshine man's rag slapping a shoe, 3-4, 3-4. At one point, Lucky has to hold on to his own feet to keep them from doing what they do naturally.

Although the song is in the movie, the number itself has no counterpart--the show uses a new book by Jeffrey Hatcher. But it feels like a movie number, tracking Lucky through Grand Central Terminal as he fights the urge to dance to the city's beat--only to give in at last to his fabulously tapping feet.

Racey, chose style in this number recalls the lightly humorous approach of Ray Bolger, is hard put to answer a question about whether he sees himself as a dancer who can tap or a tapper with other talents. "In the musical theater," be says, "I'm seen as a tapper. But in the tap community, I'm still learning. I'm not a novice, but I'm intermediate, I'm aspiring." His tap chops grew out of his boyhood love for drumming--a gift for rhythm is hardly a surprise in someone who was keeping the beat to Sousa marches a week after he got that little toy drum. He took to other kinds of dance during his tour years at the Boston Conservatory as a musical theater major, and there was even talk of a ballet career. But, he says, "I would have had to stop speaking and singing and tapping."

If he'd known that he was going to end up in his first Broadway lead attempting a role created by Fred Astaire, he might have stuck with ballet. But at 33, Racey has too much experience to let himself get rattled. He knows that he'll be in trouble if critics and audiences evaluate his performance by comparing it to Astaire's. "I will die," he says. "I will crash." He's staying sane by returning to one simple fact: "I've been doing this for ten years," he tells himself. "It's huge--it's amazing--that I'm the lead in a Broadway musical. But it's a gig. There have been gigs before this; there will be gigs after this."

It is, he says, a matter of pulling his mind in a place where he can get "the best return on investment." But his mental discipline does allow for the occasional stray fantasy, as he's working on a song or rehearsing a step. In those moments, he says, "I like to picture Astaire smiling, patting me on the back and saying, 'Keep it up.'"

Broadway columnist Sylviane Gold has written about theater for the Boston Phoenix, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, and The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:Noah Racey stars as Lucky Garnett in "Never Gonna Dance"
Author:Gold, Sylviane
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:980
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