Stage & Dance

Lexington is her Staging area again

She doesn't stand out in her blue jeans and white blouse while reading a book among the early afternoon patrons at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.

A people watcher might peg her as an average Central Kentucky mom grabbing a few minutes of peace and quiet before it's time to gather up the kids from school. Her ruby-framed reading glasses are the only hint at maybe something a little more glamorous like, oh, wife of a movie star and daughter of a highly successful, world-famous businessman.

And that is how Robyn Peterman-Zahn likes it, even as she steps back into the spotlight — or, at least, closer to its glow.

Peterman-Zahn, wife of actor Steve Zahn and daughter of clothier J. Peterman of catalog sales and Seinfeld fame, makes her directing debut with Paragon Music Theatre this week in the company's production of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III classic The King and I.

Ask Peterman-Zahn about her hubby or dad or even her own stage career, and the answers are fairly concise. Ask her about the show, which opens Thursday, and she is effusive.

"Most of these people are not going to go on and do this professionally," Peterman-Zahn says. "It's just a passion that they have, and I just think Paragon is an awesome place for people to fulfill that passion in a really, pretty-darned-close-to-professional way. It's as close as I've seen, which is to Ryan's credit, to Diana's credit and to my credit that we run it like that. We expect a lot and we give a lot."

Ryan is Paragon executive director and music director Ryan Shirar, and Diana is choreographer Diana Evans Pulliam. They and Peterman-Zahn form a trio that is the brain trust of Paragon, a musical theater troupe that formed in Lexington in 2004. In a way, it has filled a void left by the mid-1990s demise of Lexington Musical Theatre, a troupe for which Peterman-Zahn turned in some of her earliest performances.

"I did The Sound of Music when I was in junior high, so that was technically the first professional show I ever did," Peterman-Zahn says over lunch at Joseph-Beth. "I always knew I wanted to do this and I didn't want to do anything else.

"Maybe I'm just a big ol' ham. I loved being on stage. I loved singing, I loved performing, I loved to dance. That's what brought me joy. That brought me complete joy."

She also was involved in theater at Tates Creek High School. After graduation she went to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to study theater, getting Screen Actors Guild and Actors Equity cards, the film and stage actors unions, respectively, while in school.

"While I was never a household name, I was a working actress, which is an accomplishment," Peterman-Zahn says.

Her gigs included off-Broadway and Broadway productions such as the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees, some independent films and numerous TV series pilot episodes, most of which never aired.

Her biggest movie success was Larry David's Sour Grapes, putting her to work for the man whose idea to make her father a character (played by John O'Hurley) in Seinfeld turned J. Peterman into a household name.

"He didn't realize who I was at first," Peterman-Zahn says. "He thought I was just this actor from New York. We had a good laugh about it."

A key show in Peterman-Zahn's life was a national tour of Bye, Bye Birdie, in which she played Deborah Sue. Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking were on that tour, but the big deal to her was the guy playing Hugo Peabody: Steve Zahn.

"It was love at first sight," Peterman-Zahn says, turning the "o" in love into a long "u." "It was a great tour."

They married in 1994, and both continued acting until the late 1990s, when they started their family.

"It was a choice, and one I don't regret at all," Peterman-Zahn says. "But it was difficult at the time because I had so long identified myself with my work. But I had these two beautiful people who were by far my greatest accomplishment."

That's also when she realized that New Jersey winters "really stunk," and her husband suggested they live in Lexington.

When they moved in summer 2004, Peterman-Zahn says people started talking to her about getting involved in area projects, and she resisted initially.

"We just said no to everything because we came back here to live and raise our kids," Zahn says.

But Pulliam, with whom Peterman-Zahn had remained friends after being a student at Pulliam's dance school, kept insisting she meet Shirar and see Paragon shows. Eventually Peterman-Zahn agreed, seeing a rather modest production: The Last Five Years at Natasha's Bistro.

"The three of us sat down, and that's when it happened," Zahn says. "I was so taken with Ryan and his talent and his passion, truly for theater and musical theater. And as I got to know him, I saw the extraordinary quality of his work and how hard he worked. I already knew this about Diana."

"With that combination, I said, 'Yeah. I would love to be part of this organization.'"

Shirar recalls Peterman- Zahn "asking a lot of questions about our organization: What's our vision? What's our mission? What shows did we have in mind."

It was a good time to become part of Paragon, as stage director Michael Friedman had decided he wanted to step down.

Peterman-Zahn waded in slowly, observing last spring's production of The Music Man, which was directed by School for the Creative and Performing Arts drama teacher Alberta Labrillazo, and then directing Paragon's Summer Cabaret series at Natasha's, which will be presented again this summer.

"It was a wonderful opportunity to put a lot of people in the spotlight," Peterman-Zahn says of the cabarets.

With this current production, Peterman-Zahn is also effusive about the talent onstage and off, starting with longtime Lexington actors Whit Whitaker as the King of Siam and Jennifer Parr as Anna.

She also lauds scenic designer Tony Koehler, who started with Paragon and is now based in Chicago ("He likes everything bright and sparkly, just like I do.") and costume designer Anita Shirar, Ryan's mother ("She builds her costumes from the ground up, which you never see in community theater.").

Peterman-Zahn hadn't done much directing before Paragon but says she is enjoying the challenge.

And she doesn't talk about the group like someone who's just running it to occupy her time. She, Shirar and Pulliam have ambitions for Paragon, including expanding its seasons to include a fall and spring Opera House production and initiating education programs through the theater.

"When I stopped acting, there was a creative hole there, a little void," Peterman-Zahn says. "I'm not doing it so everyone knows I'm doing it. I want the respect of the actors and Diana and Ryan, and to be able to pull stuff out of people they didn't know they had. I didn't know how much I'd love it. It's been a good fit, and I am really, really proud of all these people."

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