Acting couple Steve Zahn and Robyn Peterman-Zahn revisit their first hello with 'Bye Bye Birdie'

After 18 years of marriage, parenthood, movies and shows, 'the journey's been great,' they say, and they're doing 'Birdie' again.

rcopley@herald-leader.comAugust 2, 2012 

  • IF YOU GO

    'Bye Bye Birdie'

    What: The Rep's production of the 1960 musical with a book by Michael Stewart, lyrics by Lee Adams and music by Charles Strouse

    When: 8 p.m. Aug. 3 and 4; 3 p.m. Aug. 5.

    Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.

    Tickets: $25 general public, $20 ages 65 and older, $15 students. Available at the Lexington Center ticket office and all Ticketmaster outlets. Call (859) 233-3535 or go to Lexingtonoperahouse.com.

  • IF YOU GO

    Fountain Films on Friday: 'Sahara'

    What: The 2005 hit starring Steve Zahn, Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz.

    When: Film starts at dusk, about 8:45-9 p.m. Music and other activities precede the film.

    Where: Triangle Park, Main St. at Broadway

    Admission: Free.

They were both struggling young actors who almost didn't get onto the 1991 national tour of Bye Bye Birdie starring Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking.

Robyn Peterman was in the national tour of A Chorus Line and turned Birdie down because of scheduling conflicts. And Steve Zahn was not the first choice to play Hugo Peabody.

"Somebody else was cast," Zahn says, "and then I think (he) got a TV show. Because I auditioned, and then it disappeared for a few weeks, and then I got a call saying, 'You want to do this?' And I said, 'I thought that was a while ago.'

"I definitely said yes because I was poor, a poor actor."

Meanwhile, A Chorus Line and Birdie producers worked out Peterman's conflicts so she could be in Birdie.

"I remember I saw him the first day I came in," Peterman says, "and I thought, 'I'd better stay away from him, because he's really cute,' and I had another boyfriend."

Zahn says, "I know, I was so bummed."

That was 21 years ago, and things clearly worked out because Zahn and Peterman, now Peterman-Zahn, just celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary.

This weekend, they are revisiting Birdie, the show that brought them together, now as directors of The Rep, the Lexington theater troupe that they formed with longtime friend Diana Evans Pulliam, owner of Diana Evans School of Dance, where Peterman-Zahn learned to be a triple threat.

Zahn, of course, has had a successful movie career in films including SubUrbia (1996) and Sahara (2005) and playing Davis McAlary on the HBO series Treme. Peterman-Zahn pursued stage and film before focusing on raising their children, Henry and Audrey.

As he prepares to open Birdie, Zahn is reminded of that Hollywood life as he gives phone interviews for Diary of a Wimpy Kid 3: Dog Days, which also opens Friday. In the series, he has played Frank, the father of the story's protagonist, Greg (Zachary Gordon).

And, by complete coincidence because it was originally scheduled for an earlier date, his 2005 movie Sahara is the feature this week in the Fountain Films on Friday series in Triangle Park, a block from the Opera House.

Despite all that, Zahn's focus is clearly on the stage show he is directing with his wife.

Over lunch at Joseph-Beth Bookseller's Brontë Bistro, one of the couple's favorite haunts, conversation is about Birdie, particularly firming up details of the show.

"It's so fun" Zahn says. "And it's so fun when it starts clicking. The reason we're doing this is not just because theater people want to get together to do a show. It's to do a great show, and when things start clicking and it starts to happen, it's so exciting. There's nothing like that."

Peterman-Zahn says, "The reason I do it is I get an absurd amount of joy out of yanking stuff out of people and getting them to do things they did not realize they could do."

Peterman-Zahn, a Tates Creek High School graduate and daughter of Lexington clothier John Peterman of The J. Peterman Co., first dipped her toe back into Lexington theater in 2009, directing Paragon Music Theatre's production of The King and I. She became the theater's stage director and subsequently helmed productions of Hello, Dolly!, The Sound of Music and Gypsy, plus several cabaret performances. The company closed with the departure of founder and music director Ryan Shirar, who left to take a scholarship at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

They thought Paragon was Shirar's project and needed to end with his departure, but Peterman-Zahn and Pulliam wanted to continue. Zahn, who had been in the shadows with Paragon, wanted to be part of the new troupe.

The Rep debuted in December with Smackdown for the Christmas Crown, an original show written by Peterman-Zahn and presented at the Lyric Theatre. Birdie brings them back to the Opera House, which was the setting for Sound of Music in 2010.

It also brings Zahn and Peterman-Zahn together on a production for the first time since Birdie and, of course, back to the show where they met.

"Clearly, it has a lot of meaning for us," Peterman-Zahn says. "This is the first time Steve and I have worked so closely together directing a show, and we really didn't know how it would work out."

Zahn says, "It's really fun. We have a really different take on a lot of things." His wife adds, "But our aesthetic is the same."

Zahn has a lot to do with the aesthetic, having played a big hand in building many of the show's elaborate set pieces in the barn workshop on their Lexington farm. Over lunch, he gleefully shows Peterman-Zahn and Pulliam photos of pieces in progress and discusses the logistics of moving some of them on and off the stage.

At Tuesday night's technical rehearsal, Zahn spent much of his time backstage directing the stagehands, while Peterman-Zahn concentrated on the more than 60 actors in the show.

But Zahn also gave some stage direction, particularly to Hunter Henrickson, who plays Hugo Peabody, the role he played on tour. At one point, Zahn playfully encourages Henrickson to ham up a scene where Hugo claims to be drunk, although he's been imbibing only milk.

Pulliam says the three directors are united in a desire not only to put on a show, but to train performers, particularly kids in the show, who want to go on to stage careers.

She says that when they first showed up together at Evans' Burt Road studio, Zahn's first question was, "Can I see the baby's room?"

The baby was Evans' new son, Evan Pulliam, who now grown plays the Elvis-esque title character, Conrad Birdie, in this production. And the production will be next door to Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, where they were married in 1994 during a busy time in New York for both of them: She was in Damn Yankees at the Marquis Theatre, and he was in SubUrbia at Lincoln Center.

Reflecting on their two decades together, Peterman-Zahn says, "Everything's been great. The journey's been great.

"We lucked out. We both ended up in the show when we weren't supposed to be in the show. I married my best friend, and we're still happily married."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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