by Nan Robertson
New York Times, December 27, 1979
He bounds on stage, fresh as the morning sunlight that- imaginary though it be-- bathes the scene. His head is as full as his carpetbag with wondrous things. He has been far away, in the great wide world, where he saw a skyscraper seven stories high! Where they turn the knob on a thingamabob called a radiator and heat comes out. He has been, in short, to Kansas CIty! And then Harry Groener, playing Will Parker, Ado Annie's hayseed swain in "Oklahoma!" proceeds to enthrall the folks out front with "Everything's Up To Date In Kansas City."
THe voice is a nasal whine, like a jew's harp; the feet, said Walter Kerr in The New York Times, jump up from the floor "like so much sudden popcorn." Indeed, Harry Groener popped into instant stardom in the critics' eyes; called a standout, a show-stopper, a delight, a hoofer and a light comedian par excellence.
Offstage, he projects the same kind of wide-eyed naivete and enthusiasm he projects in "Oklahoma!" Mr. Groener (pronounced "Groaner") started off an interview at Sardi's by blurting out: "It's a good show. It's just what we need, with all these Iran troubles. It's a patriotic show. It says, 'Hey, we're all right!'" Will Parker could have spoken the words.
Mr. Groener came into the world eight years after the original "Oklahoma!" was born, and in another country. He was born in 1951 in Augsberg, West Germany, the son of a concert pianist and a mother who had studied opera. The nation that Adolf Hitler had led to destruction still lay buried in mountains of rubble. So Johann Groener and his wife Iris sailed for America with their baby son.
Opted for the stage early on
They were to ross a continent before they found ahome. The Groener settled in San Francisco, where they still reside. The father, whose stage name was Harry Fox, went to work for an insurance company and continued his musical interests on the side.
Meanwhile, the son started showing talent. "I decided I would go on the stage by the time I was 10 or 11," Mr. Groener said. "I was always dancing in the living room at family parties. From the beginning, my parents were supportive of my wish for that kind of career."
At 13, he played the prince in "The Nutcracker" and appeared in Thurber's "The 13 Clocks". "By then, the acting bug had bitten me for good," Mr. Groener said, "and dancing took second place." His first play in high school was "The Diary Of Anne Frank".
In 1970, at the age of 19, Mr. Groener started performing in repertory at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, Calif. More drama training followed at the University of Washington. Only three years ago at the Actor's Theatre of Louisville, Mr. Groener got his first Equity job, playing a reporter in Gore Vidal's "The Best Man". This was followed by Nick in "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" and Ambrose in "The Matchmaker."
He met his wife, the actress Dawn Didawick, in St. Louis, where she was playing in a production of "Vanities" and Mr. Groener was asked to choreograph some cheers. "She thought I was condescending," Mr. Groener said, "condescending but attractive." They were married by a justice of the peace in Boston in the fall of 1978.
Variety of roles
There followed a criss-crossing of the country and a plentitude of parts: Raleigh in "Journey's End" at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Sergius at the American Stage Festival in New Hampshire, Mercutio at the Pacific Conservatory in California, among many.
One year ago at Christmas, William Hammerstien II, the lyricist for the original musical, auditioned Mr. Groener for the part of Will Parker. The actor did not want to follow the company to Florida, being sentimental about spending the holiday season in New York with his family. "We'll call you," said Mr. Hammerstien, and to Mr. Groener's amazement, he did. Rehearsals began in May in Los Angeles and the role was his.
"I've done things I've never done before in dance, a lot of intricate things, and Miriam Nelson, a choreographer, and I worked and worked and worked on them," Mr. Groener said. "But the best of all was learning to twirl and do tricks with the lariat."
In April of this year, the "Oklahoma!" company hit the road playing nine cities before opening on Broadway Dec. 13. The grueling schedule did not faze Mr. Groener, whose attitude toward his work is guilt that he's getting paid "for something I enjoy so much."