"I usually play the crazies, or I’m dancing around onstage in my underwear,” says Savannah Wise of her Broadway career. From Sherrie, a small-town girl turned rocker babe in Rock of Ages, to the seductive Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime, Savannah has a penchant for playing off-the-wall characters. But this year, her stage personality shifts as she plays Wanda Clark in the quirky new off-Broadway musical Lucky Guy. “I love bringing sweetness and heart to insane roles,” she says. “And now I bring some funk to a sweet ingénue.”
It’s no wonder Savannah owns every role she plays: She was born into showbiz. Mom and dad, dancer Kiel Junius and Tony Award-winner Scott Wise, met onstage during the first national tour of A Chorus Line. (Her stepmother, Elizabeth Parkinson, also boasts an impressive Broadway resumé—she starred in the original cast of Fosse.) But Savannah’s parents never pushed their daughter to follow in their footsteps. “They’d say, ‘You’re so smart—don’t you want to be a doctor or a lawyer?’ ” Savannah says. Though she had short-lived dreams of being a fashion designer or a chemist, Savannah felt destined for the stage. Once she’d made that choice, her parents were adamant that if she was going to do it, she was going to do it right. So, starting at a young age, Savannah took voice lessons and trained in ballet and tap at Debbie McCann’s School of Dance in New Jersey.
Her big Broadway break came when she was only 8 years old, playing Young Cosette in Les Misérables. “I had a blast,” she remembers. “I was with a bunch of other kids every night, running around a Broadway theater. Every day we would come up with something new to do, like playing Blind Man’s Bluff in the bathroom.”
After she finished her two-year run in Les Mis, Savannah’s parents divorced, and she moved from New Jersey to New Orleans to live with her mom. Though Savannah hated the strict ballet classes she enrolled in at Loyola Ballet, she loved taking hip hop, tap and even ballet classes at Broadway Dance Center when she visited her dad in NYC. But it wasn’t until college, at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, that Savannah started considering herself a “real” dancer and not just a recreational one. “Both of my parents are ridiculously talented, so I never thought of myself as a great dancer like them,” she says. When she was cast as Maggie in the school’s production of Brigadoon, Savannah decided to add extra dance classes to her curriculum. “The part was all dance, and I thought, ‘Really? Me?’ ” she says. “It was at that point that I really started believing in my dancing abilities.”
After graduation, the triple threat went straight to the stage, performing in regional productions of The Wizard of Oz and The King and I at The St. Louis Muny, an outdoor musical theater stage. She moved to NYC and promptly landed a part in GOGO BEACH, a show at the New York Musical Theatre Festival based on the classic 1960s beach party movies. After that, Savannah toured with High School Musical on Tour, and then settled back on the east coast playing Joanie Cunningham in Happy Days at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House. While there, she heard about an audition for Rock of Ages, a rock musical that was opening off-Broadway. Savannah used a rare day off to attend the huge dance call in NYC. “I was all decked out in my ’80s gear,” she remembers. “People looked at me like I was nuts, but dressing up for auditions makes it so much fun, and apparently the creative team and casting directors were at least mildly entertained by it.” When she got the call offering her a spot in the show’s dance-heavy ensemble, Savannah returned to the Big Apple and performed with the musical as it moved on to Broadway, eventually transitioning into the lead role of Sherrie.
A huge moment for Savannah was getting to perform at the 2009 Tony Awards with Rock of Ages. “I’ve watched my dad at more than a few Tonys and always wanted to be doing what he was doing,” she says. “That was the moment when I thought, ‘I’m really doing it. I got here.’ "
After spending nearly two years in Rock of Ages, Savannah moved on to another Broadway musical, this time grabbing the spotlight as Evelyn Nesbitt in Ragtime. The show didn’t stay open long, but Savannah managed to score an Astaire Award nomination for her work.
Now, as Savannah switches gears to originate the role of Wanda, she’s excited to start something new. “Lucky Guy is so precious,” she says. “The cast is a motley crew of people. I get to sing an angry girl number with a drag queen! It’s one of the most hilarious, fun things I’ve ever done on a stage.”
Though Savannah didn’t have a dance audition for the show, choreographer AC Ciulla knew he wanted to take advantage of her talent as soon as he saw her name on the cast list: “She has the dance gene in her body,” he says. “There are so many performers who just have technique, but her natural instincts and impulses are always right on.” Wanda wasn’t originally a dancing part, but Ciulla transformed “Needle in a Haystack,” a duet with Savannah and her love interest in the show, Kyle Dean Massey, into a playful song-and-dance number. And Savannah brings her own flair to every two-step and do-si-do.
As for Savannah’s future in showbiz: “There will be shows written in my lifetime that are going to be better than anything I could imagine,” she says. “I’m just excited to see what’s next.”
Dream role: Polly in Crazy for You. “I did this part in college, and I want them to revive the show on Broadway so badly it hurts.”
Favorite NYC activity: “Just walking around and exploring with my Zagat guide. I love being outside and hanging out in Central Park in the summer.”
Favorite food: “Cheese makes my toes curl. It’s the way to my heart. I always have a block of brie in my refrigerator. It’s one of my favorite things to indulge in at the end of the day.”
Favorite book: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Dating life: “Everyone has a type—I date dancers. My boyfriend, Tony Yazbeck, is wicked talented. We dance around my living room a lot. I could never be with someone who I felt uncomfortable dancing around my living room with.”
Guilty pleasures: “Every once in awhile, sleeping in until 2 or 3 pm feels delicious. I also love dropping money at Lee’s Art Shop—I could spend hours in there. And I’m an avid book buyer. I read during all my breaks.”
Siblings: “My stepbrother is 6. He’s learning how to dance, and he has my stepmom, Elizabeth Parkinson’s, feet. I’m so envious. He has this dry sense of humor, which is hysterical. People think I’m his mom when we’re together by ourselves, and I don’t correct them. I think he’s the coolest kid ever.”
Who would play her in a movie: Rachel McAdams. “People say I look like her, and we have a similar quirkiness. But if I were casting the movie of my life, I would want to pick somebody who wasn’t a star, who was just starting out.”
Rachel Zar is an editor at Dance Teacher magazine.