Thursday, April 29, 2010


photo by Diane Sobolewski


This week's post is about Broadway dreams. I don't know a stage actor who doesn't hold Broadway as one of his or her ultimate goals. Broadway represents the highest level of achievement in American theatre, and it is the place where a stage actor can accomplish the most visibility and best income. I decided to be a Broadway star at the ripe old age of twelve! And what's interesting as I look back is that the people I went to school with, my teachers, everyone who has known me and my lifelong obsession with succeeding in this profession, have all expected that one day I would achieve that dream. It continues to be a motivator for me and a goal that feeds my ambition and my persistence in this precarious business.

Working at Goodspeed, as on the National Tour of "Spamalot," has given me the opportunity to work alongside performers who have already achieved their Broadway dreams and, in some cases, have been back to the Great White Way many times. Nearly all of my fellow principal players in this show have trod the boards on Broadway; this realization makes me feel simultaneously thrilled to be working with people of this calibre, and all the more eager to make my own Broadway debut a reality. Doing this production at Goodspeed feels like another vital step toward that achievement--this theatre represents the best of musical theatre and draws upon the rich pool of talented artists that have earned their stripes on Broadway. A handful of friends have made their Broadway debuts in the past year, most recently a very talented and dear pal who is part of the cast of the hit new revival of "La Cage Aux Folles." Sean Patrick and I met doing a production of that very show together and to see him realize his own Broadway dream fills me with great hope (and a twinge of jealousy!). I feel like I am getting closer and closer to being a part of this wonderful Broadway community of great performers doing new and exciting work.

I got a marvelous taste of this community when I attended the 24th Annual Easter Bonnet Competition at the Minskoff Theatre in New York on my day off this week. This event is the culmination of a season of fundraising by Broadway and touring companies for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, an organization that provides funds and services to people living with HIV and AIDS, and many other worthy causes. At the Easter Bonnet Competition itself, representatives from various shows put on skits and musical numbers created for the event, and each company creates an elaborate 'Easter bonnet' as part of their presentation. Celebrity judges then vote for the best performances and best bonnets, and awards are presented to those Broadway and Off-Broadway shows that raised the most money for BC/EFA. The performances were both hilarious and deeply moving and the spirit on either side of the footlights was one of love, caring and celebration. I was alternately roaring with laughter and fighting back tears, and before and after the show I was able to mingle with so many friends that I have made over my years in New York and particularly in the last few years, with my work on the "Spamalot" tour. I felt like I was already a part of the Broadway community I so want to join, and was proud and happy to be there. By the way, the annual fund drive raised over $3,000,000, a testament to the commitment of the theatre community and the generosity of its patrons.

I had a very magical experience last week while doing one of my costume changes in "Annie Get Your Gun." Goodspeed has one of the most extensive and best quality costume collections in the country; in addition to creating brand new costume creations for each production, they also acquire entire Broadway productions. It is not unusual for an actor to find him or herself wearing a costume piece that was created for a Broadway show, or that was part of the stock of one of the legendary costume rental houses in New York. I was dressing for my scene at the Brevoort Ballroom, where all of the men wear elegant white tie and tails, and I noticed an old label in the back of my cream colored waistcoat. The actor's name on it was none other than Robert Morse! I was disappointed that few of my fellow performers knew who Bobby Morse is, but personally I was excited. Morse is one of my idols, and one of the actors I feel I have strong kinship with in terms of type and personality. He was the original Finch in "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying," for which he won a Tony and went on to make the motion picture. He also starred in the musical version of "Some Like It Hot," "Sugar"--I had the thrill of playing his role of Jerry and hope one day to get a chance to do it again. Morse won a Tony for his one man show about Truman Capote, "Tru," which was also filmed for PBS, and recently appeared in a recurring guest role on the smash hit series "Mad Men." Morse is one of those brilliant, funny, short actors that I have always been inspired by. I don't know what show the vest I wear came from, but knowing that Robert Morse wore it on Broadway makes it a lucky talisman for me. Someday, hopefully not too far in the future, an ambitious actor full of dreams will find himself wearing a costume made for me for a Broadway show, and will point to the label and exclaim, "Look! James Beaman wore this!" Well... I can dream, can't I?

Saturday, April 24, 2010


The show is really starting to settle into a nice groove, and our audiences have been having a ball along with us. What great, responsive crowds Goodspeed attracts! The production also continues to be refined and finessed by our director and choreographer; refinements to the staging, adjustments to the lighting. Since we are officially still in 'previews,' these kinds of tweaks are a natural part of getting it all just right before the press is invited. Those of you who followed my travel blog during my "Spamalot" tour know that I like to do some travelogue-ing along with all the back stage stuff, and share some of my adventures and photos. So...

After the rigors of tech week and the opening weekend of performances, I elected to stay back here in Connecticut for the days off Monday and Tuesday. And what a great decision it turned out to be.
The weather became pleasant and temperate, and the countryside here is in full flower--magnolias, dogwood, the lushness of lilacs, the blaze of forsythia. East Haddam has many beautiful 18th and 19th century homes, lovingly restored and expertly landscaped. A walk in almost any direction around here yields new charms to enjoy. I decided to make a visit to the Devil's Hopyard, a state park just down the road. I took a leisurely hike along a few of the circuitous trails running through the unspoiled woodlands of the park, enjoying the quiet. Had a bag lunch at the foot of the gorgeous Chapman Falls. A visit with the natural world is always so restorative and I needed it.

Tuesday I impulsively jumped in the car and drove to Old Lyme, to visit the Florence Griswold Museum. The galleries themselves were regrettably closed for an installation of a new exhibit, but I was more interested in visiting the Griswold House itself.
This old sea captain's mansion was a boarding house run by Florence Griswold, where American Impressionist artists lived and painted—often directly on the walls and doors of the house. Leading artists of the Lyme Art Colony who stayed at the boarding house were Henry Ward Ranger, Childe Hassam, and Willard Metcalf. The ground floor of the house has been restored and staged to evoke the early 20th century when the house was in its heyday.
The upper floor is a gallery displaying some magnificent works by the various artists who stayed in the house and painted the surrounding landscapes. It was such a pleasure to be able to go right up to a Childe Hassam painting and examine it, and take some photographs. The grounds around the house are beautiful, as is the riverfront in the rear of the complex. William Chadwick's artist studio, a small but charming shack, was placed here and evocatively arranged inside to really feel the way it might have back when the artist worked there. The tableaux of objects made it feel like Chadwick had just stepped out and might return any moment.

That evening, I drove to New Haven to see a play at Yale Repertory Theatre. While I was on tour, I tried often to see theatre in the various cities I played, but our performance schedule always made it difficult. At Goodspeed I have Tuesday off, and can take in a play at a regional theatre. As it happened, it was also restaurant week this week in New Haven, so I had a wonderful pre fixe meal at Zinc, a chic and popular eatery near the theatre. Yale Rep is a stunning state of the art space housed in what was the Calvary Baptist Church. I saw a dark, violent play called "Battle of Black and Dogs," by French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes, which explores the sublimation of Africans by French profiteers. It is a raw and relentless look at racism, paranoia and inhumanity that was a bit hard to take at times, but beautifully acted. Yale represents the highest level in the training of actors and the Yale Rep is a professional artistic extension of the school's standard. I was delighted to finally see something there and enjoy the charms of New Haven for an evening.

My favorite part of this week was a visit from my Mom.
She drove down from Massachusetts to see me in the show and spend some time with me. My Mom is my biggest fan and was my first acting teacher. She owned a company called The Acting Place, Inc. in my hometown of Beverly, MA when I was a preteen and teenager. It was an incredible education that provided me with a foundation and inspired my passion for theatre. Mom's a great lady and I really enjoyed sharing the fun of "Annie Get Your Gun" with her. Nothing like sharing what you love with those you love.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Me in Charlie garb with leading lady Jenn Gambatese

"Yesterday they told you you would not go far...
That night you open and there you are..."

We are officially up and running! This past Friday was our first public performance, technically the start of previews (our official press opening is May 12), and if the audience response thus far is any indication of what we can expect going forward, we will have one heck of a fun run. What a blessing to finally have that infusion of energy that comes with the connection to a live audience! This past week of technical rehearsals was brutal and tedious. I don't mind writing that, since the results were well worth the hours of tedium! Our director, Rob, is meticulous and exacting and his attention to detail is extraordinary, and at times, utterly maddening. Nothing escapes his eye, and everything matters. This is probably why we felt so able to grab the show and run with it when that first performance came. Rob's unflinching perfectionism created a strong and solid foundation for us. Thanks also have to be given to our stage manager, Brad, his assistants Alicia and Derek, and the entire crew. Goodspeed Opera House is a charming venue but it has more than its share of challenges and idiosyncrasies. The primary issue is the plentiful lack of back stage space. There are virtually no wings in this theatre--one walks off stage and has to duck behind a narrow curtain or plaster oneself up against a wall to avoid being seen. Consequently, in a big musical where multiple people, props and set pieces are being hustled on and off the stage, an elaborate system of traffic management has to be devised. The stage managers and crew, by now so expert at this game, have mastered these challenges admirably--I doubt anyone out front (except perhaps those on the very far sides of the house) have any clue how truly shallow it is back stage, or that the movement of bodies back there is more intricately choreographed than any of the show's dance numbers!

The limitations of the theatre also pose challenges to the designers, inspiring ingenious and brilliant solutions. Our set designer has used forced perspective and other artistic applications to create an illusion of depth and space, and employed old fashioned roll drops (rather like enormous window shades) that seem to "fly" in and out; our lighting designer has broken up the space with layers of light and color; and our costume designer has capitalized on the rich fabrics and flowing skirts of the 1880's to transform a small ensemble into a teeming crowd. Our orchestrator, together with our brilliant musical director, have given the sound of a full orchestra to our talented band of eight. Now I know why Goodspeed's productions have always been so acclaimed and respected. It takes extraordinary talent and creativity to present such detailed and spectacular shows on this stage. But don't get me wrong--the Opera House is a wonderful place to perform. Acoustically it is very bright and resonant, and there is something really terrific about performing a show set in the same period in which the theatre was built. It's like stepping back in time. Magical. Musical theatre, like jazz, is a true American art form, and to see a classic like "Annie Get Your Gun" performed in a theatre steeped in history and Americana, in a charming old New England town, must be a unique and thrilling experience for our audiences.

Knowing the pressures being brought to bear upon the company this past week, Goodspeed's staff took very good care of us all, providing meals to the hardworking crew, and making sure that all of us had what we needed. We were feted right royally at a party to celebrate our first performance at the Gelston House next door to the theatre. I am sure I speak for most of my fellow artists when I say that I feel very much appreciated here and it really makes it easier to do the work. I must say that my admiration for our star, Jenn Gambatese, is limitless. This is Jenn's first role since having her gorgeous baby, Josephine, and she could not have chosen a more demanding part to tackle for her comeback! Annie sings at least ninety percent of the music in this show and is rarely off stage. Jenn is not only handling the demands of a challenging part while struggling with seasonal allergies (we are all coping with the onslaught of Spring!) and the full time job of being a new mom, but she is doing it all with grace, sweetness and true humility. She is an inspiration, on stage and off, and I am so happy to be working alongside her. I really love our company of artists, and have a special soft spot for my counterpart in the show, the talented Rebecca Watson, who plays opposite me as Dolly Tate. Becky has worked at Goodspeed twice before and is an accomplished actress, singer and superb comedienne. We have become fast friends and greatly enjoy the caustic relationship between our two scrappy characters, and the audience shares our delight when Charlie and Dolly discover a buried passion for each other at the end of the story!

And so, we can now settle into our run here in East Haddam, and enjoy the deepening and finessing of the show as we perform it eight or nine times a week for the next couple months. Now that we are up, I can also explore the area, see some sights, and enjoy the summer to come. I have heard from many of you, and am delighted that you are enjoying my blog. It's a pleasure to share it with you--stay tuned!

Saturday, April 10, 2010


It's was a jam packed week here at Goodspeed, as we readied the show for the addition of the orchestra and all the technical accouterments that await us next week. We really maximized every possible hour at our disposal, refining the staging and choreography and doing our all important run-throughs of the entire piece. Moving through the show after working on it piecemeal is our only way as performers to really understand the arc of the story and to get used to the physical demands of our individual performance "tracks."

On Easter Sunday, we gave our first such run-through, with an invited audience including our designers, some of our crew people, our producers and some special guests, including the head of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin, who gave our production two enthusiastic thumbs up!
My housemates and I decided, since we were working on a holiday, to host a luncheon for the entire company at our cast house, the "Stonecroft." The night before I went into a culinary frenzy and cooked three large pots of jambalaya with andouille and chicken, as well as some good old fashioned potato salad. The lunch gathering was warm and joyful, everyone basking in the warm sunshine and the bonhomie of each other's company. Truly, there's no people like show people.

As the week progressed it became clear to us all that, not only did we not have a whole lot of time left before the move into the opera house, but that we do indeed have a show.
I find myself, while observing scenes and numbers I am not in, experiencing goosebumps and being genuinely choked up by the sweetness and heart of the story and the performances. Jenn Gambatese gives Annie the requisite pluck and gumption that one would expect, but tempers it with a sincerity, sweetness and vulnerability that give the character beautiful colors. Her leading man, the able Kevin Earley, brings a rich, mellifluous baritone and a wry sense of humor to his Frank Butler. I am truly blessed to have a superb comedienne as my Dolly Tate, the talented Rebecca Watson, with whom I have become fast friends; our scenes together are going to be wonderfully funny and full of surprises. I find myself more and more comfortable in Charlie's skin, and am having a ball being the source of much of the comedy in the show.

I cannot tell you how very appreciated and cared for we all are here at Goodspeed. The efforts of many kind and enthusiastic people make our jobs possible. It is we who get all the applause, but it is because of people like Dave and Lucille Viola. This extraordinary couple are patrons of the arts in the classic sense. Not only are they sponsoring the production, they are also gracious hosts and treated the company to an elegant dinner at the Gelston House. They seemed to really know how very welcome a genteel evening of drinks, dancing and putting on the dog would be to a company of people so intensely engaged in the creative process. Grateful thanks!

Friday brought one of the great treats of doing a musical--the long awaited arrival of the orchestra. If you have ever performed with live music, you will know what a scintillating experience it is.
When I was performing my nightclub acts, I had a small four piece combo with me and I considered them a living, breathing part of my performance, wholly connected to my heart and my thoughts. The thrill of singing with an orchestra is one of the things that brings me back to musical theatre again and again. The company gathered for what is called a wandelprobe, which basically means a rehearsal with the orchestra while doing our usual staging and physical business. It excited and energized all of us to hear the talented eight piece band expertly performing Dan DeLange's special orchestrations for the Goodspeed production. I wish audiences could truly grasp the painstaking attention our director, choreographer, and our musical director, the great Michael O'Flaherty, give to every detail of the sound of this classic score. Every high kick is given special percussive emphasis, every tender moment is crafted and modulated for the most delicate and moving effect. Observing the process of collaboration between the directors, arranger and musicians was like watching a team of gourmet chefs concocting a one of a kind banquet resplendent with exquisite delights. Truly, theatre-- and musical theatre in particular--is one of the most satisfying collaborative experiences there is.

Next week's post will include back stage photos at the Opera House, including first glimpses of the costumes and sets for the show, as we forge on toward our opening on the 16th. Until then!

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Jerry Orbach as Charlie Davenport, 1966

How does an actor create a character? Each has a different approach, a unique alchemy with which he or she puts the pieces together, but we all start from one place: the words on the page. Really, they are all we have. An author has imagined this person, woven him into the fabric of the story, and placed within the lines on the page all the information we need. This is where I start, no matter how classic the piece is, no matter how many times I have seen it performed, or seen the movie adaptation. In the case of Charlie Davenport, as imagined by Herbert and Dorothy Fields and the adaptor Peter Stone, I wanted to know who this guy is, what is his importance to the story, and as much as possible about where he comes from and his personal quirks and qualities. Charlie is the guy who keeps the Wild West Show together, he's the manager, the boss... but he is also, in this adaptation, an important part of the framing device of the show--the play within a play. Charlie introduces every scene, ordering the roustabouts to set up whatever locale is necessary for the next event in the story. So right away, I know that this guy has a certain energy--he gets things done, he issues orders, and he will do whatever he needs to do to keep the show going.

The text also told me how Charlie speaks, the rhythms and the peculiar idiom of his speech. With lines like, "We're waitin' 'til midnight, so's we can sneak ashore without no one seein' us make our triumphant return on a cattle boat," I was able to gather two things: he's no Rhodes scholar, and he probably comes from New York. He also sounds like those guys in the classic Hollywood films of the '30s, like "42nd Street"-- the harried stage manager, chomping on a cigar, barking orders, and shooting off zingy one liners. The picture starts coming together. Archetypes and cliches are a part of the fabric of our collective culture. While we never want to settle for a two dimensional stock character type, we can't ignore the potency of those familiar creatures with which the audience can form an instant rapport.

So here's this guy with sort of snappy energy, a working class New York accent, and a spicy sense of humor. He's starting to take on a shape. That's where the costume designer becomes the actor's best friend. Traditionally, Charlie has always had a very specific look. He represents New York show business, vaudeville, and as such, has to have an entirely different appearance from the western characters like Buffalo Bill or Frank Butler.
Looking at pictures of say, Jerry Orbach in the 1966 revival, or Keenan Wynn in the MGM film, one sees a template emerging--flashy checked suit, bowler hat. Our costume designer, Alejo Vietti, in line with our director's vision of creating a more realistic, textured world for the show, has given Charlie a slightly more elegant look, with stylish suits and brocaded waistcoats. These vests have truly informed my physicality for this guy, and I find myself in rehearsals hooking my thumbs into my vest pockets and showing off my gold watch chain. And there's that classic bowler hat. Just as there are archetypes for character, there are certain articles of clothing that speak to our embedded cultural consciousness.
A bowler hat evokes many things to me: the surrealist paintings of Magritte, Charlie Chaplin's little tramp, Monty Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks," the stuffy father in "Mary Poppins," Mr. Banks. All of these associations lend subtle, almost imperceptible color to the way in which I wear and use the hat. It's a wonderful prop, incredibly fun to work with, gesture with, and use to punctuate my dialogue.

At last, when I look in the mirror, I want to see Charlie looking back at me. Our costume designer has given him a pair of wire rimmed glasses, which to me give him a rather sweet, vulnerable side that works wonderfully at odds with the snazzy suits and wisecracking dialogue. And to add that last bit of period flair that to me really evokes the late 19th century, I decided to grow a mustache for the role. Part of the reason for this decision was purely selfish. I hate gluing false beards and mustaches to my face. The spirit gum (a mixture of liquid resin and toxic spirits) stinks and burns the skin, and no matter how fine the quality of the hairpiece, inevitably, with facial movement and sweat, that thing will come loose on stage at some point and no one wants to have to deal with trying to keep a fake mustache from dropping off in the middle of a scene. Besides, actors love to transform themselves, and while I must say I feel rather self conscious in my daily life wearing a 'stache that might have been fashionable in the 70s but is completely outre now, I love it for Charlie.

So, am I an "outside in" actor, or an "inside out?" My answer is: both. You can't help but be, really. Your imagination has a life of its own--the script suggests things that evoke memories and images stored in the deep recesses of the brain; the historical research of the period the play is set in tells you things about your character's lifestyle; the clothes make you feel and move a certain way; the other actors will tell you about who you are in relationship to everyone else who populates this imaginary world. This is what makes an actor's art-- largely an interpretive art form-- so creative and exciting. Ultimately, the character is ME. Me in imagined circumstances. Until the actor grasps this concept, his work will be superficial--pasted on, like that fake mustache. All of Charlie's emotions, his needs and wants, are mine, emanating from me as a result of the way the imagined circumstances play on me. The accouterments, like dialect and costume, are the finishing touches, the cherry and the whipped cream on the sundae. It's my hope that my Charlie will be a delectable treat in the smorgasbord of theatrical delights the Goodspeed audience will enjoy in "Annie Get Your Gun."