NEW YORK -- Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager want to be very clear on one point, in case they get off the wrong foot: He's no Fred Astaire and she's no Ginger Rogers.
They may often look like the classic dynamic duo on a Broadway stage, crooning happily to each other and sweeping effortlessly in an elegant fox-trot, snuggled in each other's well-tailored arms.
"We're not playing them and we're not trying to be them," Lemenager says as she and Racey gear up to headline a performance of "Never Gonna Dance," a stage adaptation of the 1936 Fred-and-Ginger movie "Swing Time."
"It's always been an homage to them but not a reproduction - out of respect to them," agrees Racey. "We're in the footsteps of a pair of amazing performers."
Fred and Ginger aren't the only big names hovering over the production: It's directed by Michael Greif, who helmed "Rent," it's choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, who also did "Hairspray," and it features music by Jerome Kern, of "Show Boat" fame.
There are only two no-names billed high in the production - Racey and Lemenager.
Snuggled in Racey's candlelit dressing room for an interview at the Broadhurst Theatre, the pair of 33-year-olds are keenly aware that "Never Gonna Dance" represents their star turn, the culmination of years hoofing and singing in relative obscurity.
"It's unheard of to get this," Racey admits, while reaching for a handful of M&Ms. "They don't entrust you with roles like this. The painful part of the business is that they'll call Ralph Macchio or they'll call ..."
"Heather Locklear!" Lemenager interjects with a laugh.
"People are so eager to put a big name in things and they can't dance or they can't act in this kind of style," Racey continues. "It's humbling and it's exciting and it's what we've been doing for 10, 15 years."
"Never Gonna Dance" - the title comes from an early version of the movie's name - tells the story of John "Lucky" Garnett, a professional hoofer who arrives in New York to prove his worth to his fiancee by trying to earn $25,000 without dancing. He fails, miserably, on both counts, getting embroiled in a dance contest and falling in love with a dance teacher played by Lemenager.
"It's a love story that doesn't involve greed and sex and violence," says Lemenager. "There's a sense of escapism. I guess what I'm getting from people who come backstage is that this is a breath of fresh air. We're not trying to be anything or say anything. We're just being and falling in love and having a really good time - simple and romantic and easy."
While the story mimics the movie's love-will-conquor-all script, producers of "Never Gonna Dance" made sure Racey and Lemenager's dance steps didn't ape those of Astaire and Rogers in "Swing Time."
"We're trying to bring the essence of what they did together, which is, to me, two people with really distinct personalities that have this spark and this energy between them that you can't quite describe and you don't quite know why it works," Lemenager says. "And I think that we've just been able to find it in our own way and not try to feel like we're trying to be Fred and Ginger."
The show features Kern songs - "Pick Yourself Up," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Waltz in Swingtime," "A Fine Romance," "I Won't Dance" and "I'm Old Fashioned" - and include lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields and Johnny Mercer.
Lemenager and Racey lead a cast of veterans, including Deidre Goodwin ("Chicago"), Tony Award-winner Karen Ziemba ("Contact"), Ron Orbach ("Laughter on the 23rd Floor"), Peter Bartlett ("Beauty and the Beast") and Peter Gerety ("Conversations With My Father").
"I think the great thing about this experience is that we've both been living the moment," says Lemenager. "Occasionally, we'll turn to each other and say, 'How?' 'What?' 'Wow!"'
"And, 'What were they thinking?"' Racey offers.
Racey and Lemenager worked together once before and auditioned for "Never Gonna Dance" in September 2001. They weren't paired together until they were both called back.
"It felt right - right away," Lemenager says.
Lemenager, from Worcester, Mass., is a former elite gymnast who shared the same coach as U.S. Olympian Shannon Miller. She quit gymnastics at age 12 and moved to New York to become a dancer, making her Broadway debut in the ensemble of "Meet Me in St. Louis." Her other Broadway credits include "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Guys and Dolls."
Racey, from Seattle, graduated from the Boston Conservatory and landed a role in the Broadway revival of "Follies" after six years of regional work.
Both toiled on the road and in the background before getting "Never Gonna Dance." Now colleagues embrace their success.
"Local Kids Do Good," is the headline Racey offers with a laugh. "Everybody talks about how it's all cut-throat and everybody's out for their own thing, but there's also a sense of camaraderie and support and community in this city that makes you well up. It's so amazing to feel it and to feel it around you."
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