In Memoriam: Anne Pitoniak & Michael Smuin

Last week saw the passing of two more theatre luminaries, actress Anne Pitoniak and choreographer Michael Smuin. If you’ve never heard of either of them, then read on. You will definitely recognize some of their credits.

Pitoniak created the title role in Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, ‘night, Mother, for which she was nominated for a 1983 Tony Award for Best Actress. A second Tony nomination came eleven years later for her performance as Helen Potts in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Picnic by William Inge. Some of her other notable New York appearances included John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, The Octette Bridge Club, Amy’s View by David Hare (opposite Judi Dench), Dance of Death (with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren), Pygmalion (1991 OBIE Award), and Horton Foote’s The Last of the Thorntons.

Hers was also a familiar face at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where she played one of her first professional roles in Marsha Norman’s Getting Out. She also appeared in D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game at ATL, as well as several plays by Jane Martin, including Middle Aged White Guys, Talking With, and Keely and Du.

If you think Pitoniak’s resume is impressive, wait ’till you hear this: she didn’t even take up acting until middle age. She spent most of her life as a wife and a mother before deciding to take acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. Her Broadway debut in ‘night, Mother came at age 61.

Talk about inspirational! To my mind, Pitoniak always exemplified the can-do power of positive thinking. Or, as Shakespeare famously put it, “Thinking makes it so.”

Michael Smuin was a Broadway choreographer who won the 1987 Tony Award for Best Choreography for Lincoln Center’s wonderful revival of Anything Goes. He began his career as a dancer, appearing in the original Broadway cast of Little Me (choreographed by none other than Bob Fosse). During the 1970s, he was a principal dancer and resident choreographer for American Ballet Theatre here in New York.

For the rest of his career, Smuin split his time between ballet and The Great White Way. He directed and choreographed the Duke Ellington revue, Sophisticated Ladies (starring Gregory Hines and Hinton Battle), as well as the notorious Shogun, The Musical. He also served as the co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet during the 1980s, and formed his own Bay Area dance company, Smuin Ballet, in 1995.

On a momentarily personal note, I was fortunate enough to have seen Lincoln Center’s revival of Anything Goes, and it was terrific. The tickets were a Christmas gift for my grandmother, who was a lifelong dance teacher and aficianado: I treated her. She knew Smuin’s work very well, and was simply overjoyed by the production and his work on it. Seeing that show with her is one of my favorite memories of her and I, and I am eternally grateful to Mr. Smuin for his part in that.


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