Dazzling, toe-tapping 42nd Street Delights the Bucks County Playhouse

Tessa Grady is Dancing and Singing Her Way Into the Hearts of Audiences Near and Far

By Debra Wallace

When it comes to the Grady family legacy one can easily say like father like daughter.

When Tessa Grady was a young girl it seemed quite natural that she would go into the family business and perform on stage and on television.

Growing up just outside of Hollywood; young Tessa was surrounded by examples of the spotlight; her grandmother, Mary, was a talent agent for child actors, and her aunt, Lani, was one of the children on Eight Is Enough.

But primarily it was the example of her father, Don, best known for playing the role of Robbie Douglas on the beloved family series, My Three Sons, as well as a composer for movies and television. But he left his biggest mark on his two children; son, Joey, and daughter, Tessa.

Early on, Tessa’s father gave his daughter some wise career advice – ‘wait until you are old enough to decide if this is your true career path.’ He was firm: he simply did not want Tessa to have regrets, nor did he want his daughter to be robbed of the simple pleasures of childhood.

All of this held Tessa in good stead, and she has carved out a brilliant musical theater career, which includes her current role as Peggy Sawyer in the dazzling production of 42nd Street, now playing at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope. The truly delightful show continues through Saturday, August 4.

Her father, who wrote music for the Blake Edwards comic movie Switch, and the theme song for The Phil Donahue Show, pursued his love of acting by starring in the national tours of Pippin, and had roles in Godspell and Damn Yankees.

His acting credits included several Western series, including John Payne’s The Restless Gun, Have Fun Will Travel, Buckskin, Wagon Train and The Rifleman.

Coincidentally, her dad played Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees on stage at the Bucks County Playhouse in 1984, and although he died in June 2012 at age 68, he was able to bask in the joy of seeing his talented daughter perform in L.A.

At age 24, Tessa is living her dream of performing musical theater on Broadway and elsewhere, and as always, making her extended family proud. Her growing list of credits includes Dames At Sea, Cinderella, and Annie, on Broadway; and off Broadway or pre-Broadway, Clueless, The Honeymooners, Carefree: Dancing with Fred and Ginger, First Wives Club, Gotta Get A Girl and Chasing Rainbows.

She has appeared in The King of Queens on television, and did session work as a singer in The Santa Clause 3, Fred Claus, and the Disney Princess CD series.

Currently, nestled comfortably in an apartment in New Hope for the five-week run of the show,  Tessa, a charming actress says that she loves the universal appeal of 42nd Street, which first opened on Broadway in August 1980.

The time-honored musical tells the story of Peggy Sawyer, a girl from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who comes to Broadway for an audition, only to discover that she is too late – all of the roles have already been cast.

Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes and the subsequent 1933 film adaptation,  the show focuses on the efforts of famed director Julian Marsh to mount a successful stage production of a musical extravaganza at the height of the Great Depression.

The show is a jukebox musical of sorts, in that, in addition to songs from the 1933 film 42nd Street, it includes extraordinary tap dancing numbers, and such memorable songs as, I Only Have Eyes For You, We’re In the Money, You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me, Shuffle Off to Buffalo and Lullaby of Broadway.

As theater lore goes, 42nd Street Producer Davis Merrick took a huge gamble with his $3 million production based on the 1933 Warner Brothers film musical, because he felt that Broadway audiences were ready to embrace the nostalgia crazy started by previous successful revivals.

Theater historian John Kenrick recalls that “When the curtain slowly rose to reveal 40 pairs of tap-dancing feet, the star-studded opening night audience at the Winter Garden cheered.”

It was clear that champion followed this number with a series of tap-infused extravaganzas larger and more polished than anything Broadway really had in the 1930s.”  This rousing audience welcome continued with the 2001 Broadway revival and the current production at the Bucks County Playhouse.

The current production of 42nd Street will transform you back in time and keep you engaged. The choreography, colorful costumes and melodic voices result in a tap-dancing stage triumph that makes you want to sing and dance your way out of the theater. It should not be missed!

Tessa, your father was a child actor who played the role of Robbie Douglas on My Three Sons for 12 years, starting in 1960. Did you ever watch the show with him, and if so what was that experience like?

TESSA GRADY: We hardly watched his shows together because it was his past and he always liked to celebrate the present.  I recall my brother and I discovering some tapes of a few episodes deep in his office and putting them in the VCR. He had no idea we had found these and he stood there laughing at it. I remember us sitting there together watching these episodes and he kept cracking up because he was watching himself do a scene, a bit or a stunt. His brows were furrowed and he would say, ‘How do I not remember doing this?’ After 12 years it would have been a lot to remember.

Did you watch them later on?

TG: Yes, I have seen many episodes on my own.

You come from an entertainment family so were there life lessons there?

TG:  Both my dad and mom were extremely supportive that whatever passions their kids had was fine with them. When I was young and started singing and dancing and my grandma owned the Mary Grady Agency and she would say, ‘get this girl into auditions.’ But my dad was the one who refused to let me be pushed in theater, TV and film or any auditions until I was old enough to choose for myself.

Why do you think that was?

TG: He started performing at 10 years old. He looked back on that with fond memories, but lost out on simple things of childhood. He was adamant that I was going to be a kid, so it wasn’t until into my teen years that I started telling him I want to take these lessons, cultivate this and audition for regional theater. He embraced this with open arms for me to go what my heart wanted. To this day I appreciate the wisdom he had for me and my brother Joey.

What do you love most about this show?

TG: I love that this show pretty much reaches out to any age, and to any audience member. It is definitely a family-friendly experience. This is also a show that spans every emotion during the two and a half hours we are on the stage – loss, eagerness, confusion, serendipity and more. These are all emotions that everyone can relate to, and we feel that when we are on stage. Each one of us has been through something in their life involving loss – and we feel from the loss and the gain that Peggy goes through in the show. We get to do so much in the two and a half hours.

How did you approach your character of Peggy Sawyer for this production of 42nd Street?

TG: Well, first of all I have played her several times, but I have not gotten a crack at the role for a while. The first time I was 17 and the second time I was 20, so I was very good at playing her naïve and green side; it really came naturally to me. But during the second part of the show when she grows and becomes a woman I had to pretend that aspect.

Now that you are a little older, has that changed?

TG: This time I approached the role with fresh eyes. Not only did Peggy deserve that, but I believe that every role deserves that grounded-ness that I don’t always see in certain productions. So, this was my older self-being able to take on my memories of my youth and using my youth and innocence percolating there. So now that is the side of the show that feels natural to me.

You grew up in Thousand Oaks, California, near Hollywood, but where do you reside now?

TG: New York City. I have always wanted to live there. I am loving it in New York.

What have you enjoyed about living in New Hope?

TG: My gosh, everything – the people, shops, charm, all of it is perfect. I had my mind completely blown. I’m trying to figure out apartment pricing so I can possibly get a place here. It is everything I wanted in a town that I didn’t know existed in one place.

Why should people to come if they have never seen this show before?

TG: If you’ve never seen 42nd Street on the stage this is the time to see it. The Bucks County Playhouse has never put on such a big production. We have an amazing New York cast. The show is in a small intimate space that somehow transforms into this big classic musical. I love that the audience feels a part of it. When you come you will feel like you are on the stage with all of the singing, tapping and over excitement. It’s quite contagious!

How is this show different from previous productions?

TG: It really is a different animal because our director, Hunter Foster, and the producer, Robin Goodman, have added an element of female empowerment, which goes perfectly in the storyline of the show. This is about a young girl, Peggy Sawyer, who had the guts to demand a role when the audition was over. She refused the word no. Peggy usually becomes the victim of everyone’s plotline.

But this is not the case in the current production?

TG: No. By tweaking some scenes from the movie, and other nips and tucks, this fierce young woman can change the mind of the director and becomes the vehicle for strength and tenacity. You have to remember that this show was written at a time when there was not a lot of this social, political and generational awareness going on.

Please tell me more.

TG: Well, at the time 42nd Street was written, the show can have misogynist undertones or jokes that can seem unsavory for strong women. So they have taken that script from a different era and updated it. They are staying true to the integrity of the show but now it includes an aspect about the empowerment of women.

What is it like having a five-week run of a show instead of the often one week or 10 day run that many shows have?

TG: It’s wonderful. I really love playing a part like this for a month or more. It’s one of my favorite aspects. It means I really get to experience living as Peggy Sawyer. When you play summer stock you only have one or two weeks to live in the shoes of a character and then it’s over. Having the opportunity to play Peggy for 4-6 weeks is glorious. It gives us so much opportunity to settle in and really sit with the characters that we have created. It’s a bit like having a child and getting to enjoy play time with them. Peggy feels so natural for me; it’s become such an easy transition from onstage to off stage. It truly doesn’t feel like work when you understand your character so well, and she is living your life and vice versa.

You already knew Blakley Slaybaugh who plays the part of Billy Lawlor, and helps Peggy get her spot in the show after she misses the audition.

TG: Yes, Billy and I were on tour together in Cinderella, and we were dance partners then as well. So this is the second time we have danced together in a show. Last time he had to be lifting me in the air in a giant ball gown, and now we are tap-dancing up a storm.

What do you hope for your future?

TG: I always want to be happy, thrive and wake up in the morning to find fun things to do. Work-wise? I have done a couple of auditions since I have been in New Hope. It is close enough to take the train into New York and I can also make a video. I have a couple of things in the works. Everything is a possibility.

Does this cast feel like family?

TG: Yes. We started rehearsal on June 12, so we have been together for a while, and it is a huge group. We hang out together, coffee, drinks, and meals. Half of the cast went tubing down the Delaware River during a recent day off. You usually find a few people who are not to your liking at any job that you do, but honestly, there is no bad egg in this group. This cast is filled with gems.

Who has come to see you in this production?

TG: Some friends from New York and my boyfriend, the Broadway actor, Michael Wartella. He has been in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tuck Everlasting, and other shows. He came on opening night and brought his son.

What other Broadway musicals would you love to be in?

TG: I would love to be in Waitress, because it is so emotionally moving. It piqued my interest because I am more often cast in period shows from a different era and Waitress in a modern show. So, it would be exciting for me to be able to do a show like that. I have my eye on the more emotionally intense and emotionally grounded a show. It is fascinating to get roles like that with a real human aspect, and help the audience have an outlet in their own lives. Other shows I am attracted to are Beautiful: The Carol King Musical and Dear Evan Hansen.

What advice do you have for anyone who want to follow in your footsteps?

TG: I always say the same thing. ‘Please go after your dreams and goals, in theater or whatever you want to pursue, but also find what in life brings you joy other than theater. While you are pursuing your passion if you have another outlet, it will save you. So seek and find other hobbies that make you happy and proud of yourself. Theater is a creative outlet – so having other artistic passions and outlets will light up your brain and deepen your understanding of acting a role. This will keep you human and sane and living a happy life. Find some balance and don’t make your career your whole life.

For tickets, please visit buckscountyplayhouse.org, call 215-862-2121, or visit the box office at 70 South Main Street, New Hope, PA.



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