Former Miss America to play leading lady in '42nd Street' at Arts Center

eshaw@islandpacket.comNovember 26, 2013 

Former Miss America Susan Powell rehearses a scene from the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina's upcoming production of "42nd Street" with Nic Thompson.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

  • IF YOU GO

    WHEN: Dec. 4-29

    WHERE: Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, 14 Shelter Cove Lane, Hilton Head Island

    COST: $55 for adults and $37 for children. Preview performances for Dec. 4 and 5 are $45 for adults and $31 for children.

    DETAILS: www.tickets.artshhi.com, 843-842-2787

Ask former Miss America winner Susan Powell if anything can top being crowned the nation's top beauty queen and she'll tell you: No.

But that didn't stop her from fiercely pursuing her singing and acting dreams after -- and almost in spite of -- her win.

"It follows you everywhere," said Powell, who won the title in 1981, a year after being named Miss Oklahoma. She doesn't call it a former win, but a forever win.

"Now I embrace it and I'm proud of it. Right after I won, I didn't embrace it," Powell said. "I wanted to be known for my work as a singer, not just as Miss America."

In the musical "42nd Street," opening Dec. 4 at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, Powell is known as her character Dorothy Brock, an aging prima donna and star of "Pretty Lady."

In the musical, written by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, Dorothy is edged out of the spotlight by dewy-eyed newcomer Peggy Sawyer, an aspiring chorus girl, much to Dorothy's displeasure. On opening night, Peggy accidentally causes Dorothy to fall and break her ankle. The show seems doomed for closure until someone suggests Peggy take on the leading role.

With 36 hours to prepare, the director famously tells Peggy, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star."

The show within a show, set at the height of the Great Depression, is dominated by classics like "We're in the Money," "Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and the catchy title song, all composed by Harry Warren, with lyrics by Al Dubin. It has spirited tap-dancing numbers and an old Broadway feel.

"She's funny and she has great songs," Powell said of Dorothy. "She gets to be really mean, and it's hilarious. And her wardrobe is phenomenal." (Dorothy's gowns are definitely pageant-worthy.)

Growing up singing and dancing in Elk City, Okla., Powell would sing operatic arias for the talent portions of pageants. Once she finished her Miss America duties, Powell immediately started work with the Seattle Opera, singing the lead role of Adele in "Die Fledermaus."

The acclaim she received from that role nearly rivaled her Miss America success, Powell said, because "it felt so good to have success in something that was my work."

Powell has since performed in musical theater and opera stages around the world, but said there is more work in musical theater, at least in the U.S.

As to whether the beauty queen title gave her a leg up in the business or shackled her with stigma, Powell wavered.

"It provided me a foot in the door," she said. "In this business, it's so hard to just get in the room, and it got me in the room."

Once in the room, however, Powell was assured her work ethic and talent would speak for itself. In this industry, she said, "There's just no getting anything without being good."

Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.

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