This week I enjoyed my second viewing of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at Wharton Center for Performing Arts. I’m so glad I was able to see it multiple times, because I was able to capture extra pieces of the story the second time. After the show, I sat down with the two principal roles. I found them both extremely kind and very down-to-earth.
Cindy Kangas: Did you have a passion for music and theatre growing up?
John Rapson: My parents took me to see Phantom of the Opera when I was nine or ten. It felt like a rite of passage. They bought me a Phantom fan book and I just I fell in love it. It set me off on wanting to do it. I participated in elementary school plays, the ones every fifth grader class had to do, like How the West Was Won. When I got to high school, I took a drama class to fill an extra hour in my schedule and I fell in love with it. The drama teacher spoke to the choir teacher about me. The choir teacher was Tim Lance at Rochester Adams High School. He made me sing with him. I didn’t want to be in a musical, but he convinced me and put me on track. For college, I went to the University of Michigan. Their performing arts department is extraordinary.
CK: How do you feel about U of M students getting so many calls for shows in New York?
JR: In New York, we have a showcase every year. The U of M kids come in. These kids are so good and so professional… and so ready be in the business. Kids in Michigan are training at younger ages. It’s nice for the area, because if you are doing a show like Romeo and Juliet, you are able to cast people who are the right ages for it. There are a lot of opportunities for kids in Michigan. I go back to see shows at Stony Creek, where I attended my sophomore through senior year. Production values for high school programs are amazing. They are as good as many professional regional shows that I've seen. It’s amazing when kids from your school get out and perform. It gives it gives hope and excitement. We are teaching kids they can potentially do this for a living.
CK: Are there places you like to visit when you come home to Michigan?
JR: Michigan is home to me. No matter how long I live in New York, I proudly say I'm from Michigan. I’m from Washington Township and we have a place up north. Those are my two happy places. In Rochester, I go to dinner at Bangkok Cuisine or I let my mom cook for me. I have a favorite Coney Island, too. Detroit is a new city from when I was there last. There are a lot of great things going on. The audiences are really receptive. They listen and get the jokes. They’re uninhibited enough to actually laugh.
CK: How did you come to be a part of Gentleman’s Guide?
JR: I was already working on Broadway. I’d seen the show three times and absolutely loved it. I auditioned to be an understudy for Monty. It was not a great fit for me, but I sang reasonably well. They asked if I could do anything goofy and I knew immediately they wanted to try me for the D’Ysquith family. I showed them what I could do in that sense and waited a couple of weeks. They called me to come back in to read for the D’Ysquith family. I kept getting called in over and over. The last call I was asked to take a deep breath. They wanted me to read with Kevin Massey to gage our chemistry. Generally if you're a leading man and you read with a woman. We were reading as murderer and victim. It was so much fun. After the final audition, I left the room thinking I got it. I got a message on my phone later, telling me I made it.
CK: Did you have creative license putting all the characters together?
JR: Absolutely! We have an unbelievable creative team on this show. The original creative team included multiple Tony Award winners. There was always a really incredible realization that the only way the show would work in a different production from the Broadway version is if we actually brought ourselves into what we do. It's not dissimilar from the show in New York, but at the same time there's a lot of me and my comedic influences.
CK: Tell me about your quick changes.
JR: I have a dresser that travels with us everywhere. It's a NASCAR pit stop back there. I do very little myself. I basically stand there and things happen to me and its sixteen seconds for the next change. I'm knocking wood right now, but they happen every night and I'm really not nervous about them. She does them brilliantly. We sometimes have as many as five people helping. I sort of take care of what needs to be taken care of as a time of leaving the stage. If I’ve left a scene and the curtain comes, I'll leave as I'm tearing open my coat. It’s all buttoned from the front to make it easy. In one scene, my mustache is painted on, so I wipe it off as I'm leaving. There'll be a little wipe hidden on the stage for me. There are magnets, Velcro and zippers to help. It's sort of amazing to have beautifully tailored three piece suits where you pull a little tab and it comes apart.
CK: Do you have a favorite prop or scene:
JR: I make a surprise entrance towards the end of the show and I really love being up there. I like being in the Edwardian period and using the canes, eyeglasses and hats. They completely change your body. When you put these on my character walks or speaks differently. I think the digital screen is the perfect allegory for a very old fashioned show with modern twist. It perfectly encapsulates the story as a brilliant piece of technology. The images are incredibly high definition. What you’re looking at is very real. It’s an old fashion show with a very modern sensibility.
CK: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
JR: I do things to warm up my body and my voice. Sometimes I use steam. I try to relax because the show requires every bit of my brain. I’ve never done another that does that. You can't be thinking about anything else. I’m a busybody and I'm a worrier, so to I need to get into a Zen-like place of being. I often read a bit or listen to one of my favorite podcasts to melt a little bit in the dressing room.
CK: How is your chemistry with the cast?
JR: Kevin is the first one that comes to mind. He's the best onstage partner I've ever had and even on our worst days, the chemistry is apparent to anyone watching the show. We are really good friends. I learn a lot from him. I think he's I think he's a brilliant actor and comedian. He’s an incredible singer and I like his facial expressions and reactions to what he's doing. I'm a supporting character. It’s his story. The whole cast feels that way. It’s an unbelievable group of people that fit their roles perfectly. I love working with them and I love watching them.
CK: How can fans follow you?
JR: I'm on Twitter and Instagram @jrrapson and I’m working on my website.
After speaking to John I caught up with Kevin Massey who plays Monty Navarro in the show.
Cindy Kangas: Where did you form your passion for music and theater?
Kevin Massey: I grew up in the western mountains of North Carolina, the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. At a young age I was singing in church and at home with my dad. He taught me to harmonize with him on road trips in the car. I thought that was a magical thing. Performing was for fun. No one in my family that did it professionally, so it wasn't on my radar. At school I was part of the primary players where the kids did everything from the sets to the lights. I was shy, but audition for the show and got cast in as a character that was he gets kidnapped. My character was so naughty the kidnappers paid to return me. I sort of got bit by the acting bug then, but again never considered doing it for a living. I did well in school and pursued being a doctor. I was pre-med at Chapel Hill where I was dual enrolled as a music major to look well rounded for med school. Before I started med school, I decided to do something crazy for a year. My friend commissioned me to move to New York. I went reluctantly, but I’ve never left there.
CK: How did you come to audition for this production?
KM: Originally I was auditioning in Broadway as a replacement. I understudied Monty in New York for about seven months before I joined the tour. Two months before going on tour the producers asked if anyone was interested in auditioning for the tour. I knew Monty was a really fun role, so I auditioned. Normally in shows if you have a romantic opposite they bring you in to test chemistry. In this case it wasn’t a female. It was really important because we share the stage together. I read with two very different D’Ysquith family choices. John and I were cast. He’s become one of my dearest friends. He’s my work husband and my wife goes along with that. It's important to have friends on tour so have fun together both on and off stage.
CK: Have you found a lot of yourself in Monty?
KM: I have brought a lot of my own self. The role also pays homage to the guys who played before. As a former understudy I took little pieces of other performances, but recreated role. Our director was really proactive in wanting us to bring our own selves to it. It's the same story, it's very similar, but it's also quite different.
CK: How do you play a hero that is also a villain?
KM: I hopefully keep an innocence throughout the show and keep the audience rooting me. I’m, killing people, right? It's so masterfully written that you really feel for Monte in the beginning. They've set up his story that he's kind of been this poor guy and life has happened to him. When he finally he gets an opportunity he seizes upon it and ends up maturing through it and growing his confidence. The writers and creators of set up a family so awful, that audiences are fine that they are being killed. Maybe they really want them die, because they know somebody who's just like that person. People don't mind the family kicks the bucket and Monte never actually directly kills anybody. He really just figures out their vice and sets them up. The writers set up Monty in a way that he has deniability and this is the journey that they want the audience to go on.
CK: Do you have a favorite scene or prop?
KM: I don't have many props. It's so funny, because I'm on stage the whole time and I don't handle a lot of props. I do have a saw one point. Maybe my most useful prop is my sweat rag. I pull it out of my pocket by the dab my forehead a couple times during the show, because I don't have many breaks. My favorite death is the priest who gets a bit dizzy due to the communal wine. It's one of the longer scenes where you get to know the family member. The death is very creative too, because all the sudden perspective shifts and you're looking horizontally to a bird's eye view.
CK: What are your thoughts on the digital graphic technology? Is that adding to your performance?
KM: It's incredible. This marriage of new technology into our Edwardian nineteenth century works seamlessly. Our show is a bit of a show within a show. We have a stage that I pop on and off of and devices that change scenery very quickly. They're not trying to make the screens look like a real live set. They are stylized in a way that it is a really great marriage. I think it's just great storytelling. It’s cool to see the workshop working to perfect the ideas. Music, sculpting, painting, acting, singing and dancing… It's awesome to see all those people come together for a common cause.
CK: How do you prepare before a show?
KM: It's a pretty physical show. I'm dancing all time. I'm back bending and I'm kneeling. I'm climbing and I'm dipping women. I have to make sure my body's warmed up and I roll out my legs and warm up my voice. Another part of my pre-show is to visit other company members. I don't get to do that during the show.
CK: What do you like to do when you aren’t performing?
KM: On tour I like to explore the city. I enjoy the food and the cultural, like museums. If we're in a coastal city or in the mountains we go on some hikes. I can't stress myself too much, but I don't want to sit in the hotel room. When we are in New York there are lots of things you can be doing to further your career. I have friends all around the country. I visit them if I’m in their cities. I just stayed with relatives in Providence.
CK: What will you be doing when the tour ends in March.
KM: I want to see my wife again. We're trying to do work on our apartment. Another I enjoy about this business is the not knowing. I trust that things will come when they are supposed to come. I can always go back to med school.
CK: How can your fans follow your career or listen to your Manhattan Moonshine music?
KM: Manhattan Moonshine is a trio that includes my brother and a friend. It started off by our cover of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” We put it on the web and people liked it. We were working on expanding our reach, when we all got called for jobs. You can find us on kevinmassey.com. I’m on Twitter @Kcmassey1
If you haven’t seen this show, I encourage you to do so immediately. It is amazingly hilarious!
The show runs locally through December 18th. Tickets are on sale now at WhartonCenter.com