By Bridgette Redman
Dawnn Lewis has been defying conventions since she was a teenager and it has resulted in a long-lasting career that includes Broadway, television, composing, voice acting and songwriting.
From April 25 to May 5, this former star of “A Different World”—and the composer of its theme song—will star as Muzzy in Scottsdale Theater Company’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at the Tempe Center for the Arts.
“I’ve come to know the caliber of the projects that are done there,” Lewis says. “Another client represented by the same agency as me has worked there with David (Hock, the artistic director) and had nothing but amazing things to say. It is a lot of fun working with great people in a community who loves live theater.”
Hock says Lewis can make Muzzy her own during the run at the Tempe Center for the Arts.
“Dawnn can make it her own,” he says. “She has a very sassy side to her personality, so I can make Muzzy sassy and fun and seductive.”
Hock has already made one alteration to the show for Lewis. Muzzy’s second song is always done with backup boys, but Hock is instead giving her backup trumpet players who will play what the vocals would be singing.
“Dawnn can riff and play around with the musicians on stage,” he says.
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” came out in 2002 with music by Jeanine Tesori (also known for “Fun Home,” “Shrek: The Musical” and “Caroline or Change.”) It was based on the 1967 film starring Julie Andrews. Set in 1922, small-town girl Millie Dillmount has arrived in New York City determined to become a success—which includes finding a great job and marrying her rich boss.
Muzzy is a famous singer who advises Millie on her love life, particularly with Jimmy, who will be played by Kelly Methven, who has toured with “West Side Story,” “Rock of Ages” and “Grand Hotel.”
Lewis created the role of Delores in “Sister Act” and she was in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” with Matthew Broderick.
A New York native, she was the only girl among four children and sang and danced to musical TV shows as a child. That whetted her appetite for performing.
Because she was perpetually surrounded by boys, her mom wanted to encourage her to do something that was her own and sent her to dance class when she was 7. She discovered she had a talent for it and by the time she was 8, was performing at Carnegie Hall.
“My mom raised us on her own and was really happy I had an interest that was a positive one,” Lewis says. “She invested everything she could. My brothers would come to my recitals. They hated it, but we learned to be supportive of each other.”
She graduated from high school at age 16 and played the cello, danced, sang opera and published a series of poems.
“I was seeking out all these ways to express myself creatively and it looked like the sky was the limit,” she says.
She attended the University of Miami, whose staff was reluctant to admit her because of her age. Her grandmother, who lived nearby, agreed to be a responsible adult for her.
While at college, she ignored the classes she was told she should take because she’d already had them at her performing arts high school. Instead, she chose the classes that made the most sense for her career. The University of Miami ended up developing a new musical theater degree program designed around her.
“You were either an arts or music major, but because my background was cross-discipline, I was the guinea pig for musical theater,” Lewis says. “The program has now graduated Tony winners, Oscar winners and Grammy winners. I’m really proud of that.”
They made her reaudition for every class she was already in. She says she had a 45-minute audition before a jury of the entire faculty of music and the faculty of fine arts. She performed two arias—one in Italian and one in French—a Broadway song, a jazz tune, a comedic and dramatic monologue and then choreograph a dance. She was then able to go back to taking the classes she was already taking.
After graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1982, she performed on Broadway and toured with live shows. Then she got the call to audition for “A Different World.” An hour later, her phone rang again with a request to write the theme song for the show. She thought her friends were playing a joke on her.
It wasn’t until after her audition, when she met with Bill Cosby and the show’s artistic team in the star’s dressing room, that they discovered they’d asked the same person for both roles.
She played Jalessa Vinson-Taylor from 1987 to 1992.
More recently, she’s voiced Storm of the X-Men in three games and other characters for Mortal Kombat, “Futurama,” “Spider-Man: The Animated Series,” “Bruno the Kid” and “Boondocks.”
She starred in two Disney Channel original movies. In 2006, she was in the film adaptation of “Dreamgirls,” and released a CD called “Worth Waiting For.” She has a recurring role on “Major Crimes,” DreamWorks’ “Spirit Riding Free,” Netflix’s “Carmen Sandiego,” and “Veronica Mars.”
For a busy actor like Lewis—she’s doing voices for 10 animated series and runs her own foundation, A New Day, which offers hope and empowerment to youth and underserved communities—Hock says he makes sure the schedule can work for her.
Lewis will arrive for a week of rehearsals and then the show runs for two weeks.
“For performers who have movie and TV shooting schedules, this is really nice,” Hock says. “They don’t have to commit to a long time and it opens up the possibility to more people I can get. They aren’t tying themselves up for six months the way they would for Broadway.”
Bock says this musical is just about having fun.
“It’s a fun night out to hear really good singing, see a TV star you wouldn’t normally get to see, watch some live dancing and hear a live orchestra.”
Lewis says she loves “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is about female power in the ’20s, about being progressive and not being afraid to say who you are.
“Muzzy is committed to living her biggest best life and about recognizing that there was a cost,” Lewis says. “That resonated with me personally. I love what I get to do, and I get to do it in a large way.”
What: “Thoroughly Modern Millie”
When: Various times Thursday, April 25, to Sunday, May 5
Where: Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe