THE CREEPY AND KOOKY
Two-time Tony Award nominee Kevin Chamberlin is what you might call an actor's actor. He loves to talk craft. In the late 2009 Chicago run of The Addams Family, he could often be seen meeting with audience groups after the show to answer their questions, and he was learning just as much from them. Chamberlin is an avid student of audiences. He can read an audience's personality just by listening to them before curtain. As Uncle Fester, Chamberlin uses his charm to break the fourth wall and bring the crowd along for the ride. In the "The Moon and Me," a specialty number, he floats around the stage while professing his lunar love. A multi-instrumentalist, Chamberlin gets to show off his ukulele skills as well.
I don't know the right way to say this, but I can't be the first to suggest that Fester is the perfect role for you…
What are you saying? [Laughs.] That I rot? It's funny, I was down in Mexico on the break and I was telling a friend who's from Mexico that I was playing Fester and he said, "Ah, Tio Lucas!" That's what they call him down there. I was surprised, you'd think they'd call him the Spanish word for "to rot" or "to fester" or "decompose." You know what I love about it? [The writers'] concept was that Charles Addams saw himself as Fester. It was his favorite character to draw in the family. As you can see he's at the forefront of a lot of the pictures. Charles Addams was expressing his views through Fester all of the time. So that's why they made him narrator.
Before you ever heard of an Addams Family musical, did you think Fester could be a good role for you?
No, I didn't. There's a difficulty when you have these pop-cultural iconic characters. Whether you want to see them turned into a musical or a movie. Did you see the "Addams Family" movies? Some of the characters were successful, some of them weren't. I decided to go back to the TV show that I was first exposed to and really — there's an old saying "talent borrows, genius steals" and I'm totally stealing from Jackie Coogan [from the TV show]. Because he really nailed it. I mean, I'm putting my own spin on it, but I stole his voice. The way he would crack his voice, pitch it up very high. So that's the first thing I start with when I'm working on a character, is finding the voice. I stole a lot from him.
How much fun is "The Moon and Me" number for you to do?
Have you seen it?
I was at the Monday show the night Michelle Obama and her daughters were there.
The Obama show. That was tough because everyone was turning their heads looking to see if they were laughing. It was a very odd experience; we could sense some type of oddness. We didn't know they were there, so it was definitely an odd audience in that regard. The "Moon" number is wild because there are two guys behind me named Barrett Martin and Clark Johnsen, and they are basically the lower half of my body. And the three of us have to sort of work in tandem, and we worked a lot in front of a mirror so that they could see what I'm doing emotionally so that it doesn't look detached. It's a full body suit, but they are the lower half of my body. That was a big challenge because I use my whole body to perform, and I can only use from the belly button up for this one. I feel the audience, they talk a lot during the number. And I love it. They're all trying to figure out how it's being done. And it's so simple. If we turned the lights on people would gasp at how simple it is. There's no wires, no tricks other than really good lighting and some amazing puppeteering.
Is it fun to be the center of an effects piece in a show?
It is. You want to give credit to all of the people that are making it [happen]. They're all in black ninja costumes. They are just as big a part of the number as me. But it is a very thrilling number. Someone came backstage once and said after the show and they said that number is a "coup de theatre." It really is.
You play the ukulele in the show. Is that a skill you've had for awhile?
Yeah, I grew up playing a lot of instruments. My first job in New York was a play called Smoke on the Mountain at the Lamb's Theater. And it was written by Connie Ray who's in Next Fall. Everyone in the cast had to play like five or six instruments. That's always actually been very helpful to me in getting cast a lot of times, knowing a lot of instruments and being musical and knowing how to read music. You'd be surprised how many people out there doing musicals have no idea how to read music.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Wesley Taylor told me you were extremely welcoming to him as soon as he joined the cast. Is that something you like to do, bring folks together?
Before our first day of rehearsal I went to see Wesley in Rock of Ages, and I wanted to support him and also see what he does on stage. It was really thrilling; it got me all excited to work with him. I'm sort of a social director in any cast. I've been on the outside a lot, growing up as the fat kid. So I might overcompensate. I never want people to go through what I did. It's really bad out in Los Angeles when you do a lot of TV shows — I live out there and do guest spots on TV shows — and the core group of the series regulars are there every day and then you pop in for one day and do your stuff. Sometimes you have very intimate scenes with these people but you are still sort of the outsider. And the times when those actors have welcomed me in as if I'm part of their troupe for the day, have been the most wonderful experiences. One of the most memorable ones was "Frasier," because they were all theatre actors. And actually I had a scene with Bebe Neuwirth and Kelsey Grammer and they were amazing. And also they knew I was from the theatre, too, so there was a mutual respect. But often, when you arrive cold, 6 AM in the morning on a shoot of a TV series and you have to do these intimate scenes with these people, the last thing they want to do is get to know you. They're worried about their work. And then all of a sudden you become these two dogs that are circling each other, going, "I have more credits than you." You want to make sure that they know you're not some hack.
How is your rapport with Nathan Lane as Gomez? You two seem very comfortable together.
Nathan and I have worked together a lot. I did a TV series with him and then tons of workshops. So we have a shorthand together and we have similar taste and we're both perfectionists. I really respect that in him. I never feel like I can't talk to him about a moment. Like sometimes you'll be intimidated and have to go to the director, whereas I can just go to Nathan and say, "Nathan can you step this way and then I'll step this way, I think it will work better." It's so much easier; we don't have to deal with all that star crap. He is an animal of the theatre. We both empty our tanks every night. We give a hundred percent, so there's a mutual respect there.
Being originally from New Jersey, do you have a ton of people that come out to the show to see you?
My whole high school group actually came yesterday to the show. I was in a madrigal group and the kids that are in that madrigal group now all came yesterday. So it's fun. It's nice to have the support of my homies.
THE MYSTERIOUS AND SPOOKY
Before I ever saw Rock of Ages, I'd heard a lot about Wesley Taylor's performance as Franz, with a lot of folks suggesting a Leading Men column would be, uh, Taylor-made. His Franz was one of those comic creations that both stole and stopped many a Rock show. By the time I finally saw it, Taylor was moving on to The Addams Family, in which he plays a far more serious counterpoint to the madness of the titular family — until he gets to break out of his shell a bit. Born in North Carolina, raised in Orlando, Taylor confessed that his boyhood singing voice can be heard in several "Barney and Friends" episodes, so keep an ear out for that.
There seems to have been some suspense when you were up for the job in The Addams Family.
Yeah, it was. They did several workshops before — and I auditioned for every one of them. I think they liked me, but maybe they didn't trust me because I was fresh out of school and young and inexperienced. I don't think it was until they saw me in Rock of Ages that they thought I had any sort of clout or something. So I always felt that they liked me. But I was confused because I kept getting brought back in for it and then nothing. And then finally after getting in the room like eight times, I finally got the job which was bittersweet because I was exhausted at that point from auditioning for the show.
So you thought you kind of had to prove yourself through what you did in Rock of Ages?
I mean Rock of Ages was completely different, character-wise. It's not like they needed to see the character that I was doing. It was more like I had to show the experience, the stamina.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
The characters are different, but in both shows you are sort of the outsider to the "in-group" in the cast…
Sure, and in both shows I'm kind of struggling with my father, a strict overbearing guy who wants me to live my life a certain way and I'm fighting it. Which is funny, because every guy in the theatre has probably had that issue at some point in their lives with their fathers. …It's a matter of if their dad turned around and accepted them after a while, which my dad did, which is great. It's a prevalent thing, it's common and relatable. Have you found a lot of support from your family and excitement over this year of Broadway success?
Yeah, absolutely. My parents live in China so it's kind of hard for them to come and see the shows I'm in. I always get a little jealous of other people's families. Krysta [Rodriguez]'s parents might come maybe six times in a row and I'm like, "Wow, they really love you!" [Laughs.] But my parents — I love them and I totally respect them. They kind of didn't want to settle into being bored in middle age, and they wanted to start over and move to a different country. And they went to China and started teaching at a University which is über-cool. But I miss them. My mom just came back to the States because my sister is pregnant and she's coming back and she's going to come to the opening night, which is fun.
So your dad is way different than your stage fathers.
Yes, true. Although when I was growing up my dad seriously wanted me to play sports for a while. And I gave it all a whirl and tried it all. But then I think after a while my dad realized [acting] is what I really wanted. I was ten years old and my dad and I, in a bonding project, built a stage in my backyard. We built this 12-by-8 raised, carpeted stage with a backdrop and a pulley for a curtain to operate, it was ridiculous. It was like a full-length stage for summer stock productions, and we cast all the kids in my neighborhood and all the neighborhood would come see the shows on the lawn. It was ridiculous. We charged admission and sold concessions. When I went to college my dad — we had a sign on the gate to my backyard that said Ridgemore Theater, because our neighborhood was called Ridgemore — and he took down the sign and put it in a frame and gave it to me for my going away present for college. Which was probably one of the best gifts I've ever gotten, it made me cry a little bit.
Do you ever miss Rock of Ages?
I miss it every day. That's not to say that I'm not having a good time at Addams Family, I totally am. It's just there's nothing about that experience that wasn't glorious. It was my Broadway debut, I got to take this small part and find a way with it. It was really the type of part that you just have so much fun with and I could kind of get away with anything and the stage was a playground. I will forever be nostalgic to that show.
What has it been like working with a couple of legends as you've been able to in your second Broadway show? Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth…
It's kind of ridiculous, isn't it? It's surreal. Despite what people want to write about them, they are actually wonderful people. I feel so safe and at home with them. Nathan takes me out to lunch and dinner all the time. Bebe was over at my apartment a couple of weeks ago with her husband having wine and cheese — I just got a new apartment not too long ago and she wanted to see it. They're just great people and they're huge stars, so at first it's intimidating, but not for long. They don't let you stay in that place, they make you feel warm and safe pretty soon. It's really crazy.
If you didn't get enough from reading about these two gents, as seen here on Playbill.com, Taylor and Chamberlin each have an upcoming show on May 3 at Joe's Pub, so check these two guys out in separate performances. Chamberlin is tackling TV themes for a show benefitting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Taylor will do some of his original compositions among other things he tells me for now are top secret…Red's Alfred Molina was at the "Obama" performance of Addams and was raving about the show…Finally, hats and harmonicas off to Jerry H. Adler the harmonica virtuoso and Gershwin aficionado who died on March 13. You can hear his playing in "Mary Poppins" among many other films. On Broadway, he appeared in Moss Hart's Winged Victory at the 44th Street Theatre in 1943.