Like many professional dancers, vivacious redhead Karen Ziemba began taking tap, jazz and ballet lessons at a young age. Firmly committed to her art, she nonetheless began to branch out as a high school student, singing in the chorale and playing piano. In her junior year, Ziemba faced the dilemma of choosing between ballet classes or playing the lead of Maria in the school's production of "West Side Story", eventually opting for the latter. She did not abandon dance, though, enrolling at the University of Akron in part because of the school's affiliation with the Ohio Ballet. In 1977, she was given a solo spot in the Ohio Ballet's performance of "Reflections" followed quickly by three other works. Whether it was too much pressure on the youngster or a combination of other things, the company director asked her not to return. Hurt and unsure of whether to complete her education, Ziemba continued and completed her degree.
After graduation, she found work in locally produced musicals, landing roles in dance-heavy shows like "Can-Can" and "Pippin". Ziemba ventured to NYC, did the obligatory stint waiting tables and eventually was hired for a summer stock production of "My Fair Lady" which brought her an Equity card. Work with the Equity Library Theatre followed as well a 1982 revue at Radio City Music Hall. Since then, the triple threat has rarely been unemployed. A stint in the touring company of "A Chorus Line" led to her Broadway debut in the show. Ziemba was then tapped for the leading role of Peggy Sawyer in the award-winning "42nd Street", in which she also toured. After a return stint in "A Chorus Line" and a role in the ill-fated "Teddy and Alice", she was featured in the national tour of "Jerome Robbins' Broadway".
The 1990s proved to be Ziemba's decade. In 1991, she was tapped to perform in the ensemble of a revue saluting the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Critics praised "And the World Goes 'Round", directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Susan Stroman, with many singling out Ziemba for her powerful singing and expert dancing. Ellis tapped her for the featured role of Cleo in a New York City Opera staging of "The Most Happy Fella" in 1991 and the following year bestowed on her the lead of Lizzie in "110 in the Shade". Ziemba then got to dance Stroman choreography again as the lead in the hit "Crazy for You", a loose reworking of "Girl Crazy" that featured a lilting Gershwin score. For the performer, it was a perfect blend of her talents, making full use of her soprano and her terpsichorean gifts and she remained with the show for close to three years.
Ziemba continued to impress critics with her capabilities as the lead in an Off-Broadway revival of "I Do! I Do!" in 1996 and then got to headline an original musical as the lead of John Kander-Fred Ebb's "Steel Pier" (1997), staged by Ellis and choreographed by Stroman. Playing a 1930s dance marathon contestant, Ziemba anchored the show and earned her first Tony Award nomination as Actress in a Musical. The production, however, was overshadowed by the acclaimed revival of Kander and Ebb's "Chicago" and failed to impress critics or audiences, causing it to close rather quickly. (Ironically, Ziemba would step into the leading role of Roxie Hart in "Chicago" a year later.) In 1999, she was approached by Susan Stroman to take part in a workshop of a production that eventually grew into "Contact", a three-part "dance play" with recorded music. In the second section, Ziemba essayed the timid, abused wife of a 1950s gangster who finds fulfillment in a fantasy world of dance. Once again, reviewers fell over themselves to find the appropriate adjectives to describe Ziemba's heartbreaking performance. The Tony voters also recognized her, bestowing her with the Featured Actress in a Musical award. The versatile talent has eschewed developing a singular persona that might have smoothed the transition to sitcoms or other acting gigs about which Broadway audiences undoubtedly rejoice. For the foreseeable future, Ziemba planned to continue to grace the Great White Way.