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Sami Doherty, raising the barre


In commemoration of Women’s History Month, Art Southwest Florida is recognizing women who are making our local theater scene bigger, badder and better than ever before. When we look back ten years from now on the women who’ve had the most profound impact on the quality of the theatrical productions we enjoy and the development of the singers, dancers and actors they feature, Sami Doherty will be credited with raising the barre.

Mention Sami’s name to a Broadway Palm patron, and they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms that she’s a perennial triple threat. She just starred as Lila Dixon in Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, where NBC2’s Dave Elias referred to her as “vocally talented.” But the girl can act and dance like nobody’s business as well.

So it should come as no surprise that Doherty is a Broadway Palm regular.

“She’s on stage at Broadway Palm most nights and most shows,” acknowledges Melody Lane Performing Arts Center Director Dana Alvarez.

It’s true. Her stage credits include Mamma Mia,  Kinky Boots (she was Charlie’s materialistic girlfriend, Nicola), Sounds of Christmas (where she rocked “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”), Dames at Sea (in the Off Broadway Palm), Disney’s Beauty & the Beast (Babette), Guys & Dolls (not only was she in the ensemble, she served as dance captain as well), Saturday Night Fever (Connie/Ensemble), Elf, the Musical (Matthews) Clue the Musical (where she performed a dramatic Spanish two-step that would have the ten paddles coming out on Dancing with the Stars), 42nd Street (for which she received a Broadway World Best Actress in a Musical (Professional) Award for her portrayal of Anytime Annie), Chicago, A Christmas Story, the Musical (ensemble), Mary Poppins,  Yeston & Kopit’s Phantom (where she played the roles of Florence and the Phantom’s tragic mother Belladova), Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (where she stole the show as Dogface Haynes’ little sister, Judy), Anything Goes, Evita, The Wizard of Oz, Sister Act, Show Boat, Footloose, West Side Story, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Les Miserables, Shrek, Into the Woods (as Repunzel), A Wonderful Life (as Violet), CATS (as Jennyanydots) and Cinderella in 2013.

But while her talent is beyond question, as a student of theater history Doherty knows that talent alone will only carry a performer so far. Hard work, deliberately applied, often spells the difference between good, great and off the charts. The Beatles were perhaps the greatest  songwriters of the past one hundred years, but what made the Fab Four transformational was the time they spent in Hamburg perfecting their act. For two straight years, they performed four hours a day “eight days a week.” It wasn’t quite that 10,000 hour threshold for greatness, but with rehearsal time, brainstorming and songwriting, it came damn close.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work,” Thomas Edison once said. Doherty’s closet is apparently filled with overalls. She’s the poster child for delayed gratification. She works at her craft daily and it shows every time she walks on stage. She’s that rare dancer you can’t take your eyes off of and the one whose return you’re waiting for whenever she’s off the boards.

Doherty’s uncompromising work ethic raises the barre not just for cast mates, but her directors and choreographers as well. Sami allows them to take chances they wouldn’t risk with a lesser talent.  This elevates the standard not just at Broadway Palm, but at every theater throughout Southwest Florida. But her influence doesn’t stop there.

Doherty patiently passes on her exacting work ethic and a host of other life lessons to every young dancer who walks through the doors of Melody Lane Performing Arts Center, which she co-owns and co-founded.

“She works hard and shares her many gifts with all our kids in such a profound way,” observes Melody Lane Co-Director Ginger Lynn. “When she sees the kids slacking, she reinforces that you have work hard to achieve your goals; you have to prepare and be ready at a moment’s notice for any opportunity that may come your way.”

Besides leading by example, Doherty reinforces her message by providing historical context for her eager young students.

“She tells them about theater greats from the past, about how they were discovered, came up through the ranks and the struggles they had to overcome,” Lynn adds. “The stories let them know that to succeed, you have to work hard and love what you do. Sami excites a passion in them that they might not have known they had.”

It doesn’t matter to Doherty how much talent any particular student has. She works hard to help each of her kiddos become the best they can possibly be. But for those who aspire to become professional performers, Doherty is a veritable fount of knowledge and experience that can enhance their chances for success.

There’s an old adage that says it’s hard to hit a target you can’t see. More than a role model, Doherty provides a window into what it is like to perform on stage in a prestigious venue like Broadway Palm in front of three or four hundred appreciative fans.

“Our students get to see what it’s like to do a professional show,” Lynn points out. “One of our students, who has been with Sami since she was three or four, is now the understudy for On Your Feet!

They also learn that there’s more to dance and musical theater than learning steps, routines and a medley of songs.

“As a choreographer who is a musical theater performer herself, Sami always challenges her students to dive deep and understand the motivation for each character’s movement,” observes Melody Lane Theatre Department Director Dana Alvarez.

In fact, on top of all her other responsibilities and functions, Doherty does the choreography for the shows that Melody Lane periodically produces in order to give their students the opportunity to show off the skills they are learning.

But Doherty’s legacy extends far beyond work ethic, motivation and technique.

“The lessons they learn from Sami are life lessons,” Ginger Lynn remarks. “Even if they choose not to pursue a career in theater or dance, they’ll carry those lessons with them into adulthood. She’s teaching them the importance of education, how to apply for a job, handle an interview, navigate the pitfalls of social media. Sami does a whole lot more than just teach dance.”

And how.

“We stimulate creativity, self-worth, discipline, the drive to excel and more,” Doherty told News-Press Correspondent Randy Kambic in a 2019 interview. “We cultivate a family-type environment. It’s hard work, but lots of fun.”

Although Doherty has no children of her own, all of her students and their parents are part of Sami’s extended family. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought that into stark relief.

“Sami has stepped up and been helping with the parents, doing Zoom classes, and helping the families with schooling during the day even though she’s still doing theater at night,” Lynn discloses. “She’s helping the kids find opportunities to grow and excel in spite of the pandemic, and she’s working hard to keep them connected and engaged notwithstanding the lack of social contact characterized by COVID.”

“Our students look up to her not only for her talent, but for the special way she makes each and every one of them feel,” says Alvarez.

It’s a lesson Doherty no doubt learned from her own role model, Ginger Lynn’s daughter, Melody, who passed in 2015 at the age of 29.

Sami danced with Melody during her formative years. But when Melody was just seven, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. As is true for most children with cystic fibrosis, her condition was precarious through grammar and high school. Everyone at the dance studio learned how to do manual chest physical therapy of CPTs, a technique for freeing the mucous that builds up in the lungs so that it can be coughed out. And when Melody would spend time or go to a sleepover at a friend’s house, she’d pack aerosols and her meds along with her pajamas and toothbrush.

It eventually became necessary for Melody to receive a double lung transplant. While her body didn’t reject the new organs, she developed a devastating fungal sinus infection that required extensive surgical and dental reconstruction. But in spite of it all, she waited table and worked backstage at Broadway Palm and became a Florida Everblades dancer …  until her life tragically ended one night at the foot of the Edison Bridge when her car was struck by a young lady who was rushing a friend to the hospital after he’d been shot at a nearby Waffle House.

The courage Melody displayed in the face of life-threatening illness influenced Sami in life.

No doubt it continues to buoy Sami’s demonstrable pluck and resolve whenever the going gets tough.

“When the dance studio she was teaching at closed in 2016, Sami did not want to see her students left without a dance home,” confides Alvarez. “So she and Jara [Lorenzana] and Kat [Katarina Danks, who has since departed the studio to pursue other creative opportunities] went to Ginger Lynn and told her they wanted to join together to create a new studio home for their beloved students in the memory of Melody Lynn. Sami is proud that our students carry Melody’s name with them and will pass on this legacy over the years.”

Passing on Melody’s legacy is no doubt a factor – perhaps even the overarching one – that motivates Sami Doherty to conscientiously and lovingly pass along her talents and special skills to the young singers, dancers and actors who will become tomorrow’s standard bearers in local, regional and national theater. Every day, in every way, Doherty’s raising the barre, setting new standards, producing not just better performing artists, but better people. And that’s why Sami Doherty holds a place of esteem in the pantheon of intelligent, motivated and caring women who are making theater bigger, badder and better for generations to come.

March 15, 2021.



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