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Stephanie Graham: The Drowsy Chaperone’s Choreographer

May 21, 2013

These days The Drowsy Chaperone is a much different show than the one Stephanie Graham saw at the Elgin Theatre in Ontario in the late 1990s. At the time, it had just emerged from the Toronto Fringe Festival. Broadway and a national tour were still several years away. “It was delightful, and it was funny, but there was not a lot of dance,” she says. “Only one song remains from that (original) show … but I think the writers would agree that it’s a better show now.”

It is a show that’s been widely described as a love letter to musical theatre, and it has endeared itself to Graham with its characters, plot, and themes, but mostly because TheStephanie Graham Drowsy Chaperone is “fabulously silly,” as she puts it. Graham is the choreographer for the Globe production and while it marks her debut in this space, she does have experience in-the-round, having worked in summer stock at the Showboat Festival in the Ontario community of Port Colborne.

“I love it! It’s so freeing,” she says, of a configuration in which there is audience on all four sides and the spectators are actually seated above the stage. “From that perspective, you can see the patterns. Even the simple things seem more interesting.”

The choreographer’s role in musical theatre is to enhance the storytelling and to advance the narrative. This is done through dance, of course, and in The Drowsy Chaperone, a salute to the 1920s, the styles range from elegant tango to energetic fox trot. Graham herself has training in disciplines as varied as ballet and tap, and as she points out “the two are so totally different,” ballet with its rigid limbs, and tap, where the limbs are loose and relaxed.

Born and raised in the southwestern Ontario city of Waterloo, Graham received her first dance instruction at the age of six. She did a year of residency at the National Ballet School when she was 11, and at 17 she participated in a youth exchange visit to Australia. A graduate of Bluevale Collegiate and Sheridan College, she has been a professional dancer and choreographer for 18 years and counting, and her resume includes the Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island, and also the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford.

The Stratford experience was, needless to say, “amazing,” and after that, when she was in Charlottetown, Graham was assigned to the Young Company, which meant she was involved with new shows and thus creating work as opposed to interpreting it.

“Fantastic!” is a word she applies without hesitation to the artistic team of this Globe production, as well. “It’s a great vibe,” Graham says, noting that director Robb Paterson has assembled a cast from across Canada.

“This show captures what is at the very heart of musical theatre,” she adds. “Musical theatre, of all the arts, expresses joy the best. To quote the show: ‘It does what a musical is supposed to do: it takes you to another world. And it gives you a little tune to carry with you in your head, you know? A little something to help you escape the dreary horrors of the real world. A little something for when you’re feeling blue.'”

The next project for Graham is a Blyth Festival production in Ontario this summer, when she will be the assistant director of Yorkville: The Musical, whose cast includes her husband, Rob Torr. The two have previously worked together on four shows. A marriage in which both partners are performing artists means life is “sometimes a bit harried,” Graham says with a grin, “but you figure it all out somehow.”

Her story is an interesting one, to be sure. The irony is that it might have taken a different turn altogether. As an 11-year-old in residence at the National Ballet School in Toronto, Graham was told that, while her grades were outstanding, her body shape, alas, did not conform to “the Balanchine ideal.” She was devastated, understandably, but with the support of her parents, she returned to her “previous life” and rather than abandon her dreams, she made a commitment to pursuing dance in other forms.

“At the end of the day, it has all been worth it,” Graham says, “because I’m doing what I love.”

The Drowsy Chaperone runs from May 22 – June 9, 2013. Visit the Globe Theatre website for more details, cast information, and to purchase tickets.

Nick Miliokas is a freelance writer and editor based in Regina. You can reach him by email at rozenstern@rocketmail.com.

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