Broadway Scene Stealers: The Men
By Ben Rimalower
Playbill.com correspondent Ben Rimalower offers a round-up of some of the best scene-stealing performances by male actors.
I have to serve up this list of male scene stealers with a big fat disclaimer that it is grossly limited by what I have seen, or rather, more to the point, what I haven't seen! If you feel there are glaring omissions, maybe you should invite me to a show some time!
Click through to see a round-up of the best scene-stealing performances in recent years on Broadway.
10. Jeffrey Carlson, Taboo
Taboo was not a great success on Broadway, only running a few months and getting more press for its behind-the-scenes drama than for what was happening on stage — but there was much to admire there. In some ways, it was more possible for someone in a supporting role in Taboo to make a strong impression because they were less encumbered by the messy storytelling, less mired in the plot and more able to just shine in their featured moments. This was certainly true for Jeffrey Carlson who bit into the role of Marilyn with aplomb. He mined his big song, "Genocide Peroxide," for all its punk rock power, and then managed to maintain that mystique in the scenes, even integrating it into the dry persona of his characterization, sort of Patsy to Euan Morton's Edina (to put Charles Busch's Taboo script into Ab Fab terms…). I was excited every time Marilyn entered a scene and while the show didn't last, the memory of Carlson's performance has.
9. Michael Longoria, Jersey Boys
Although he got more attention in the media for his musical pinch-hitting in Jersey Boys, Michael Longoria's role as the iconic Joe Pesci gave him the chance to strut more stuff than just his virtuosic vocals. Before Jersey Boys, Longoria had made waves in the theatre community with his trick voice, a rangy tenor that can turn on a dime, shooting straight into the stratosphere — a natural choice for the music of the Four Seasons to be sure. As Joe Pesci in Jersey Boys, though, it was his confident characterization, star presence and killer timing that stopped the show cold night after night.
8. James Barbour, Assassins
There was a lot of great acting on stage in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway production of Assassins in 2004 (the show's main stem premiere), and several of the performances were honored with Tony nominations and other laurels — Michael Cerveris even won the Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony for his role as John Wilkes Booth. When I saw this production of Assassins, I had already seen several incarnations of the piece over the years and brought a certain amount of expectation to my experiences of the performances.
The actor who most confounded those preconceptions and whose chilling performance has most stayed with me was James Barbour as Leon Czolgosz. He exhibited such vulnerability and tenderness, like a wounded puppy and then, in the style of that production with the entire ensemble almost always onstage, he maintained a lurking presence as we watched his broken heart give way to rage and, of course, the killing of President McKinley. For me, he was the heart of the show. Even as Neil Patrick Harris (as the Balladeer) sang one of the show's peppiest and most melodic songs ("The Ballad of Czolgosz"), I couldn't take my eyes off Barbour, who was standing silently.
7. Jonathan Freeman, She Loves Me
In 1993, when the Roundabout Theatre Company's charming revival of the Bock/Harnick/Masteroff confection She Loves Me opened at (the sorely missed) Criterion Center Stage, I was already familiar with Jonathan Freeman's distinctive baritone, both as the voice of Jafar in the Disney movie Aladdin and as Sheridan Whiteside alongside Christine Baranski's Lorraine Sheldon on the camptastic recording of the title song from Sherry! (the flop musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner) on the album, "Unsung Musicals." (If you haven't heard this, do yourself a favor and check it out.)
It was, then, a thrilling bit of luxury casting to see Freeman in the small role of the Headwaiter in She Loves Me. All decorum and disdain and just the slightest bit of demented joy underneath the crusty exterior, Freeman's struggle as the Headwaiter to maintain a "Romantic Atmosphere" was so hilarious, it not only energized and engaged the audience for the subsequent somber ballad ending of the first act, but left us sated with madcap merriness for the rest of night, making the entire production seem not merely quaint and sweet, but perfect.
6. David Bologna, Billy Elliot
I doubt anyone who's seen the megahit Billy Elliot could forget David Bologna's Tony-nominated performance as Michael, Billy's gay best friend and a rare role model for Billy as someone who in his own way, also doesn't fit in with the traditional working class community they live in. Michael first demonstrates this in his show-stopping song, "Expressing Yourself," where he asks Billy, "What the hell's wrong with expressing yourself, being who you want to be?" It's the central question of the show, and it lands as deeply with Billy as it does with the audience being wowed by Armstrong's bravura rendition, skirt, bangles, make-up and all.
5. Roger Bart, The Producers
The Producers is another example of a show where many people were nominated and awarded for their work, including Roger Bart for his performance as Carmen Ghia, "common-law assistant" to Gary Beach's Roger De Bris. The De Bris character is showier and more important to the plot, and the Broadway community understandably rewarded beloved veteran Gary Beach for his generous, old time-y performance, which gave The Producers the legitimate musical comedy chops Mel Brooks had sought when he originally asked Jerry Herman to write the score. (Herman told Brooks to write it himself — and the rest is history.)
Nonetheless, it was Roger Bart who delighted me the most. From the interminable "s" in his "Yes?" upon opening the door for Bialystok and Bloom in his first scene through his trilling soprano at the end of "Keep It Gay," Bart imbued every flourish, every extra extension and lilt with sincerity and passion and heart. Watching The Producers, one couldn't help but care about this bizarre little gecko of a man, and it was strangely moving how he loved Roger De Bris. I was happy every time he entered the scene, sad when he left and watched for his reactions to everything that happened in between.
4. Jeff Hiller, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
It's one thing to take a song that's written to be a showstopper or a scene that glistens with comedy gold and make a lasting impression on the audience. It's something else entirely to materialize out of the ensemble with precious little scripted material to showcase your talents, and yet pop like a featured star. It's a rare occurrence, but undeniably we saw this Halley's Comet kind of scene stealing from Jeff Hiller in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Jeff Hiller is an accomplished comic actor with a trademark off-center daffiness that embodied the eclectic, ragamuffin spirit of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and perfectly punctuated many moments in the musical. Even the most minor instances, as John Quincy Adams upon winning the rigged election, his comment "I never win anything" creates such an immediacy, an intimacy, and is so absurd, that it's rollickingly funny and you can't get him out of your head. Or when his face is burned and he says, "Oh my god, the flesh is literally melting off my face right now." I don't know that you'd think it of his part reading the show's script, but Hiller stole many scenes.
3. Brooks Ashmanskas, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me
Brooks Ashmanskas has stolen every scene he was ever in. From replacement turns in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Producers (he played Roger Bart's role of Carmen Ghia when Bart played Matthew Broderick's role of Leo Bloom) to original cast forays in the revivals of Little Me, Gypsy, Present Laughter and The Ritz, Ashmanskas has proven indispensable for any show looking to raise the comedy stakes. So solid are his comedy chops that he was chosen to the share the stage with no less than legend Martin Short in his special Broadway presentation, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. It was a wise choice — Short's hilarious hysteria seems almost sane next to Ashmanskas' Mad-Hatter daring. Indeed, Ashmanskas commits so fully to his performances, there's an intrinsic bravery to his work, like he's up on the trapeze with no net to catch him. That steals more than a scene; that steals the show. Look at him go!
2. Robin De Jesus, La Cage Au Folles
The character of Jacob in La Cage Au Folles is written to be funny, and is, in fact, seldom played without eliciting laughter. Certainly Michael Benjamin Washington's performance in the 2004 revival was hilarious, as was Hank Azaria's as Agador, the equivalent character in (the non-musical big screen adaption of the same source material) "The Birdcage." But there was something special about Robin De Jesus' performance in the 2010 revival with Kelsey Grammar and Doulgas Hodge. Like Hank Azaria, he brought a Hispanic accent to the role, and it lent Michael an almost Rosie Perez, Bronx Puerto Rican down-home quality. This could have been called "Jacob from the block" and in De Jesus' warm, appealing performance, the audience gave him free rein to be as bitchy and smart-mouthed as he could — sassy to the hilt — because he was never less than completely lovable. If Jacob didn't want to do his job housekeeping, we sympathized, understanding he had better things to do. He was a star. Of course, within the plot of the show, he can't actually get his big break, but scene stealer that he is, we won't stop hoping.
1. Christian Borle, Spamalot
Between his Tony-winning triumph in Peter and the Starcatcher and his popularity on NBC's ubiquitous "Smash," it's hard to remember a time before Christian Borle's career had established him as a star front and center, but he has tread the boards for years as a featured player and replacement leading man. Perhaps Borle was hard to place because he can do everything. He can really act (as evidenced by his stunning Prior Walter in the Signature Theatre's revival of Angels in America) and he can really sing (obvious as far back as his 2002 Ebay commercial). And Borle is funny as hell — staggeringly, originally funny. And he's extremely attractive, in a unique, unconventional way. Maybe the powers that be didn't know where to put him?
In the meantime, Borle was able to use all those gifts in Spamalot, where, it was a running gag in itself to watch for his distinctive features popping up in random places in the ensemble. If the nun in the chorus line was Borle, you could bet she was going to step out of the line and do something funny pretty soon. In a cast filled with comic gems, including Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce, Sara Ramirez, Michael McGrath and Christopher Sieber, the sight of Borle always promised something stomach-hurtingly funny about to occur, nowhere more than in his showstopper, "I Am Not Dead Yet," where his refusal to die, continuing to sing always one more chorus, elicited bales of laughter. A truly great scene stealer, Borle's eyes gleam eternally with the threat of rampaging again at any moment. This is the essence of live theatre.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues now playing off Off-Broadway. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)
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