Out of the Golden Age: Deanna Doyle
July 24, 2018
Jean McClaren, the young bride in Brigadoon is a sweet young woman with a kind smile and beautiful dresses. The actress who played her in Pittsburgh CLO’s production, Deanna Doyle, is just the same. Like Jean, Doyle has a delightful and refined aura, like a heroine of an old 1950s movie musical. Think Cyd Charisse meets Vera Ellen with the poise of Leslie Caron. At the cast party, she arrives in a pretty halter-top, polka-dotted dress with a full skirt that could have been lifted from Edith Head’s costumes. The dark colors of the dress compliment her light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. She’s very pretty with a sweet smile. The cut of the dress showcases her lithe dancer’s body. She walks with a natural grace. Her voice is soft and gentle, and she’s easy to talk to.
She’s just finished performing Brigadoon, a show she loves. “It’s a beautiful love story. I think what sets it apart from other musicals in that era is the Scottish twist to it. The kilt, the bagpipes, it just adds so much to the show. There’s something so romantic about bagpipes that sets a tone unlike the other musicals that would be similar like Oklahoma! or Carousel or Show Boat. I think it’s that Scottish twang to it that gives it that extra flavor.’”
Although Doyle doesn’t sing much in Brigadoon, she has a beautiful voice. There are videos on YouTube of her singing and dancing old standards with her boyfriend, Netanel Bellaishe. Because Brigadoon is set in the Scottish Highlands, the choreography is a combination of Highland dance and ballet. In her biggest number “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” sung by Jean’s fiancé, Charlie, played by Dan DeLuca, Doyle executes a sequence of fast, complex footwork then a series of impressive ballet moves that require masterful balance and grace. While Doyle was not trained in Highland dance, she had learned aspects of it before for a film she was working on.
“I was working with a woman years ago on a film, and we were Highland dancing. That was my first experience with it. I’ve always thought it was fascinating and so beautiful to watch. It appeals to me because it’s a good blend between ballet and tap because there’s a significant rhythm to it. It’s been nice to use it in the show.”
Doyle comes from a long line of performers. Her great-great-aunts were vaudeville performers, and her mother is a dance teacher. Because of all that, Doyle says that she’s been dancing since birth. Her mother used to take her and her older sister to the classes that she taught, and Doyle, at two and a half, stood up and decided to join one of the classes.
She trained in tap, jazz, and ballet. Because her mother was mainly a tap dancer, Doyle went to the School of American Ballet in her hometown of Brooklyn to learn ballet. She loved the pointe shoes and the beauty of the craft. She especially loved the ballets that were more acting-heavy and focused on telling stories.
In high school, Doyle made a surprising decision not to pursue a career as a dancer. She felt burned out at seventeen and decided to become “a real, normal person.” When she went to college at the University of Kansas, she was a psychology major, and she planned on going to med school after she finished her undergraduate degree. She loved studying and reading, “an intellectual nerd,” she calls herself. She was applying for graduate school when Karole Armitage called her up and asked if she would be interested in joining her company. Doyle had to evaluate carefully because she’d made the choice to stop dancing. However, she said yes and got back into it, and found that dancing really was who she is. She moved to Kansas City and danced with the Kansas City Ballet for a while before moving to New York to pursue musical theater because she loves musical theater’s ability to tell stories and transport audiences. For the last five years she’s been in New York. She was cast in the role of Meg Giry in the Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous Phantom of the Opera. Meg was Doyle’s Broadway debut, and she’s had a long relationship with the show, going back and playing Meg more than once.
Phantom has a very special place in Doyle’s heart. She loves the show and loves Meg. Meg, the best friend of the lead female character Christine, is a ballet dancer in the corps de ballet of Phantom’s show within a show. On top of that, Meg’s mother, Madame Giry, is the ballet mistress. “There are a few things I can relate to,” Doyle says, laughing.
Phantom was the first time that Doyle was really singing solo lines, and she was intimidated. “I never expected to have to sing solo soprano lines for my first role. It was a really fast process. I went in to audition knowing they needed a Meg then and there. I sent my audition tapes in, and it all just happened. A funny story, I went in to audition in this building in New York, and there was this man at the front desk in the lobby. Right away he said, ‘Oh you’re here for the Phantom audition. I can tell.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘I can tell because you’re going to get this role. I know you’re going to get this role.’ And he was right!”
Since then Doyle has been performing in musicals in New York and across the country. In 2015 she played seventeen-year-old Winnie Foster and danced in the ensemble of the world premier production of Tuck Everlasting, a musical adaptation of the novel at Alliance Theater in Atlanta. When the show moved from Atlanta to Broadway, Doyle moved with it. She was nominated for the Outstanding Female Dancer in a Broadway Show Astaire Award for the role.
Despite Doyle’s work with Tuck Everlasting, she does not often work on new musicals. She prefers musicals written before 1960. She loves Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein, the greats of musical theater. “It doesn’t get better than Gershwin. It really doesn’t. I feel like I could do nothing but Gershwin shows for the rest of my life and be perfectly content,” she says.
The last Gershwin show Doyle worked on was the First National Tour of Christopher Wheeldon’s An American in Paris. She was the alternate lead in the show, meaning that she performed the role of Lise two days a week. Lise, the lead female character, is a young French ballet dancer given the chance to star in a new work for the Théâtre du Châtelet Ballet at the end of World War II. While she deals with the aftermath of the war and a blossoming ballet career, she has to decide between true love and what’s expected of her. For Doyle, being a part of Paris was especially important, because it was a ballet centric show.
“It’s so beautiful. That show meant a lot to me because it required me to dance in a way that many musicals don’t because it was Chris Wheeldon choreography. It was like being in a ballet company again. Leaving the ballet world is so hard to do. Once you say goodbye to it, you feel like you will never dance like that ever again. Even shows with ballet in it like Carousel or Brigadoon just aren’t the same because you’re not required to put pointe shoes on and use the same amount of technique that you need when you’re in a ballet company. So I found myself in tears of gratefulness throughout my time with An American in Paris because I got to be a real ballerina again. It’s like I had a second chance.
“When I left my ballet company, I had second thoughts of, ‘Did I leave too soon? Was that the right decision?’ because you can’t go back. For me, that show meant so much to my soul – my pointe shoe soul,” she laughs.
Around the time that Paris premiered on Broadway, another revival of a 1950s musical, On the Town, came out as well. On the Town also featured ballet dancers-turned-theater stars. In fact, in August Doyle will dance the lead role of Ivy Smith in a showcase of On the Town in New York. Ivy Smith was danced by the incomparable Vera Ellen in the 1949 film. Doyle loves Ellen’s work and hopes to someday play Ellen’s iconic role Judy Haynes in the movie musical White Christmas. Doyle sees the success of both shows as the beginning for musical theater and ballet to merge. And while she’s pleased about that, she also sees the complications that it is bringing to performers like her.
“It’s also caused a lot of heartbreak for actors such as myself because producers are wanting to hire people who are currently in New York City Ballet. For instance, in On the Town I did the pre-Broadway version, and I was Ivy. I was the only principal not hired to do the Broadway show because they wanted a principal dancer from New York City Ballet. So while it’s a fantastic thing that now real ballet is being seen on Broadway, it’s hard for those of us who made that transition into musical theater from professional ballet. It’s hard for us to get a job now doing what we thought we would be doing. But there is a silver lining that it requires me to really work on the things that current professional ballet dancers don’t really have time to work on, like singing. I have to rely more on my acting skills to get hired, and my ballet skills are used as well, but it has presented a good challenge for me. It took a while for me to see that and accept that, but I like a challenge.”
Despite the issues with casting in ballet-heavy musicals, Doyle’s had a long, successful career that includes two productions of the little-known, little-produced 1936 Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame) and Hart musical, On Your Toes. The show is full of clever patter songs and includes the famous jazz ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," which Gene Kelly and Vera Ellen danced in the film Words and Music. In Surflight Theatre’s production, Doyle played one of the female leads, Vera, a Russian ballet dancer, and in Encores!’s production in 2013, she danced in the ensemble.
“That show is not done very often, and I have somehow managed to do it twice in my career. The first time I did it was at a regional theater and I got to play Vera, which was amazing. And then I did it at City Center in the ballet ensemble. It was so much fun. It’s an amazing show that just rarely gets done. It’s so cool because it’s mainly ballet and tap, which is what I grew up doing the most. It’s so fun because of all the dance numbers, and I love the music.”
If Doyle’s resumé reads like Vera Ellen’s, it’s because Doyle is very careful to keep it that way. She’s picky about the shows that she does. She tries not to do any show written past 1960 because the material simply doesn’t interest her. She says that she’s lucky to have a supportive agent who understands and books her accordingly.
Doyle loves the “Golden Age” of movie musicals, which spans roughly 1920-1960. Many of the big stars at the time were singers and dancers like Vera Ellen, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Donald O’Connor, and Ginger Rogers. The women all wore sleek, figure-flattering dresses and gave the air of sophistication and elegance. The men wore slacks and ties. Often, they were singing and dancing together to beautiful Gershwin or Berlin ballads in exotic locations. Some of the famous movie musicals to come out of that time are Singin’ in the Rain, Shall We Dance, The Band Wagon, and An American in Paris.
At the cast party, Doyle and I found that we had a shared love for the Golden Age movies and the stars that brought them to life. In the midst of the boisterous party we stood swooning over Gene Kelly together and envying the women lucky enough to have been born in time to be a young woman in the 1950s. Perhaps we looked a little out of place in our halter-top, mid-calf length full skirts, but we were happy to have found a kindred spirit. Doyle is passionate about the stars and movies of days past.
“In my spare time I teach dance because I love to. I was teaching a class at a fantastic school in New Jersey with talented kids. I was teaching a tap class and at one point I was showing them something, I wanted them to move a certain way, and I said, ‘Think more Fred Astaire’ and I got these blank stares. These are high schoolers. I thought, ‘Surely you know who Fred Astaire is,’ and I asked them, and none of them did. I was so heartbroken. It really shattered me as a dancer, teacher, and a huge fan of that era that has to stay alive. It really depressed me. I went home, and I talked to my boyfriend about it. We had a hard time with it. This is a huge problem. The dance industry cannot lose touch with of these icons because they made us who we are. If the people who are studying dance so professionally don’t know who they are then surely the rest of the world doesn’t. It’s a mission of mine to talk about these icons and that era to make sure that people know who they are. I think no one has topped Gene Kelly. He should always be admired.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the above actors and movies, Doyle recommends watching Singin’ in the Rain and It’s a Wonderful Life, though she debates for few minutes about which movies to choose. We come to a joint decision: all of the movies are fabulous, but those are the first two to watch.
Doyle might feel like she belongs in another decade, but we are incredibly lucky to have her in this one. You were fortunate if you got to see her last week in Brigadoon, and be sure to catch her in On the Town in August!
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