'Marathon 33' play explores bygone era of dance marathons

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Whatever happened to Baby June? If all you know of June Havoc is her snippet of vaudeville stardom from "Gypsy," the musical hit about her sister Gypsy Rose Lee and their mama, Rose, you've missed dozens of chapters of an extraordinary life in and out of the theater.

Ms. Havoc, who died at 97 in 2010, told some of her life story in books and a short-lived Broadway play, "Marathon 33," about her experiences in Depression-era dance marathons.

With Ms. Havoc's blessing, Tome Cousin and Peter Gregus are reviving those days with the world premiere of their adaptation of "Marathon 33." The pair shares directing and choreography duties and Douglas Levine has added music and arrangements for the Point Park University student production opening tonight.

'Marathon 33'

Where: Point Park Conservatory at the Rockwell Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse, Oakland.

When: Preview tonight; runs Friday through March 4. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $18-$20; students $7-$8; pittsburghplayhouse.com or 412-392-8000.

Mr. Cousin has been working on the project since he picked up the original version of the play and saw the film "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" while living in Germany in 1988. An early draft had a reading at Point Park in the 1990s.

Two years ago, he invited Mr. Gregus on board.

"Tome has enormous experience with all types of performance ... and I'm a little bit more conventional Broadway style," said Mr. Gregus, who is on a two-month leave from playing producer Bob Crewes in Broadway's "Jersey Boys." "He's done all of these things all over the world, plus danced naked in fountains somewhere -- you know, art. The collectiveness of those viewpoints is what we've been celebrating with this collaboration."

The two men have an easy rapport as they sit in the Pittsburgh Playhouse lounge, finishing each other's sentences and interjecting tidbits and information gathered through months and months of research.

There's another play somewhere in their visits to Ms. Havoc's upstate New York farm, when she never emerged from her sick bed but called to them and, through her sister, sent out graying images from the 1930s that will be used in projections during the show.

Then there's the history of the grueling dance marathons, where performers could go for days at a time, to the point of collapse and beyond, to earn prizes and, if they won the crowd, coins thrown from the gallery. From these marathons, Mr. Cousin traces roller derbies, performance-based wrestling and today's reality shows.

"Ultimately, what marathons left in our culture is the invention of, where we know we are watching something that is sort of fake, but we enjoy watching it anyway. There's also the Roman gladiator part of it, the real-world function of it, but inside that, there would be staged drama, melodrama, with the classic heroes and villains. So the crowd would come to see the soap opera, knowing what's real or not real."

Promoters would find couples or individuals with audience-pleasing talents and create a script as the marathon progressed. As in pro wrestling, villains would emerge to earn steady gigs. Some would get time off to recover before re-emerging to entertain again.

"There are people because of their looks and style who were always the villain," Mr. Gregus said, mentioning Chad Alviso, a woman who "Dance Marathons" author Carol Martin called "perhaps the most famous villain in endurance shows."

"She was like the worst of the roller-derby queens. Snarling and picking up referees and throwing them into the crowd, I mean, full on."

Using their own extensive research, plus pieces of the original play, a version revised by Ms. Havoc in the 1980s, her books and an informative essay, Mr. Cousin and Mr. Gregus arrived at a people-oriented formula, focusing on eight couples. The character we know as Mama Rose was added as well.

"It really helped to illuminate June's motivation and strength. Even though the mother is portrayed as a monster always, June Havoc would not exist without the strength that her mother taught her to get through the marathons, to get through the Depression," Mr. Gregus said. "They were true survivors -- amazing women."

The updated play has had several readings at various stages of production, including an all-star presentation in 2009 at the gala for New York's Abingdon Theatre Company, which has a theater named for June Havoc. The cast that night included Tony Award-winner Karen Ziemba singing standards of the era, plus Pittsburgh native and Broadway veteran Rachelle Rak and "Book of Mormon" star Andrew Rannells.

For this first full production, Point Park, students have been treated to what amounts to a series of master classes. The show-biz veterans in charge have called on friends Lenora Nemetz and Barbara Russell to lend a hand as well. Mr. Cousin, who was an associate professor at Point Park and directed two shows at the Playhouse, said this was always the place he had in mind for "Marathon 33" to get its start. After traveling the world from Budapest to Poland to Korea with "Contact" and other projects, he got a call from Carnegie Mellon about a teaching position and last year became an assistant professor for dance there.

"The timing was right," said Mr. Cousin, who also is working on "movement" for City Theatre's upcoming "Monster in the Hall."

For Mr. Gregus, the project was a creative outlet. Stagehands for "Jersey Boys" made a backstage work area for him, "so I'd type, then I'd go onstage and sing my lines, then I'd type ..."

"I'm fortunate to have a steady job on Broadway," he said. "But when you're doing a long run of a show, to have something creative on the side that was, for me, a purely artistic endeavor, where I was totally involved in what Tome and I were trying to say on the page, that was very fulfilling."

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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