by Lorie Lewis Ham
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder comes through Fresno next week for two performances at the William Saroyan Theater in Fresno. We were able to chat recently with one of it’s stars, Blake Price, who plays Monty Navarro.
KRL: How and when did you first become involved in theatre?
Blake: When I was in seventh grade, I played Aladdin in, you guessed it, Aladdin. For the sake of accuracy, let’s hope I never end up playing Aladdin again. However, it was my first real performance after spending countless years singing along to Michael Jackson (pre-puberty) and doing spot-on Ace Ventura and Austin Powers impressions after countlessly watching their respective films. Even at eight or nine, my parents had no shame in their two boys heavily laughing at Mike Myers being hit repeatedly in the groin by various planets on strings, or Ace Ventura doing a one take slo-mo replay of a football play in a tutu just to gain entry into a mental hospital. Needless to say, I always had a knack for performing and being the center of attention. The first step is admitting it.
KRL: What inspired you to make it your career?
Blake: When I was in high school, I had a million and one things I was interested in doing and pursuing. I played football, ran track, was in student council, sang in choir, ran the pep assembly, and even tried pole vaulting to terrible results (stage fright pales in comparison to running full speed and putting a pole in the ground just to jump another pole. Luckily, we had an insanely talented track team that never needed me). But one thing always remained constant: I was always in the spring musical. Our school did a play in the fall—which I wouldn’t participate in because of football season—and the big musical in the spring. First it was Guys & Dolls sophomore year, then Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray Junior year, then Sweeney Todd in, wait for it…Sweeney Todd. One of the first high schools in the country to get the chance to put on what is arguably the most innovative and complex musicals ever written for the stage. I was seventeen and I was playing a dream role, one I hope to play someday again, but, for now, murdering on stage is much more comical. (This is a strange pattern, don’t you think?) That show was a turning point, but I also was involved in an independent film my junior year called All You Can Dream which was released in Europe, but I only got to see it once in LA at its premiere at the Mann’s Chinese Theatre. That was insane. Red carpet, step & repeat, vest & tie, the whole shebang. That gave me a taste of the other side of performing—TV & film. I’ve been lucky enough to do a good deal of on-camera work since then, and it remains another driving factor for why I do what I do. The two mediums are vastly different, but both require specific skills that can daunt even the most seasoned actors. The challenge of diving into new forms of performance is incredibly motivating.
KRL: Do you have a dream role?
Blake: Monty Navarro entered my list after watching Bryce Pinkham perform with Lauren Worsham and Lisa O’Hare on the 2014 Tonys. I’ve played Billy Bigelow, but would kill to do it again. Sweeney is obviously one that is waiting in hibernation. I’d love to clean out the Rodgers & Hammerstein leading male canon with Curly in Oklahoma! I want to play Enjolras in Les Mis, not to mention another one in hibernation being Mr. Valjean himself. The second time I did the show, I was missing a front tooth in preparation for a dental implant, so I played the pimp without my Essix retainer—where my temporary tooth was held—which was just too perfect. George Seurat in Sunday in the Park, Bobby in Company, But I’d also love the chance to do more pop/rock material in Dear Evan Hansen or some Jason Robert Brown material in Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years. Most of all, I’ve been writing a television show with my roommate, Chelsea Wolocko, based loosely around our own lives which has been incredibly fulfilling and inspiring. Being able to create a dynamic character that no one else has is my newest dream.
KRL: How fun! What has it been like having a lead role in your first touring show?
Blake: Challenging. As I said before, I’m always looking for a new challenge. I believe we should be looking for growth at every point in our lives because it’s impossible to stay in one place. The world is forever changing and shifting around us and if we aren’t adapting, we’re being phased out by nature. I’ve never been on tour. I’ve never played a role where I don’t leave the stage and water breaks are choreographed to the basic minimum. There are a lot of brand new learning experiences that I’ve been thrust into without the comfort of a one-and-a-half to two month rehearsal and tech process—to which this show has previously been accustomed. I truly can’t imagine any other cast and crew but ours being able to make this show what it is under such constraints. We’ve had to really come together as a family to push ahead and do what’s never been done in such a short amount of time.
I can’t thank our cast, creatives, and crew enough for the insane amount of work they’ve done in and out of rehearsals and shows to not only put together a Broadway caliber show, but do it efficiently and without ever losing the desire to smile and laugh and the absurdity that is GGLAM. James Taylor Odom, our actor who plays the D’Ysquith family (no other Tony award winning musical has a character named for an ENTIRE family… insane), and I developed an incredible chemistry right out of the gate. It’s truly a testament to our natures as people that we can be thrust into a very stressful process doing an entirely unique and stylized work of art, and maintain the positivity, composure and work ethic that has set the tone for a great tour. I think we’re allowed to be proud of that accomplishment. I know from my experience in the ensemble, that if your lead isn’t confident about the work they’re doing, it can be very hard to trust them to do their job effectively. I think James and I prepared well enough to say that we were always confident about our work in the show, which I think only helps the confidence in the rest of the cast and crew. We knew there were going to be growing pains, but I don’t think we ever felt like we were out of place.
KRL: How long have you been playing Monty?
Blake: Define “playing.” I started playing Monty on September 4 on our first day of rehearsals. I’ve started playing Monty for paying audiences on October 3 in Madison, Wisconsin. But I’ve been playing Monty ever since my first audition in April. Aside from all the murder and infidelity (spoiler alert), I truly feel very sympathetic to this character. So far, I’ve heard from audiences that they feel the same way. Sympathy for a cheating murderer is tough, so I can also understand if there are people who aren’t necessarily a fan of Monty. But it’s not everyday you get the chance to play a character the way you would be, had you been put in this specific setting and circumstances. It’s the oldest cliche in the book for actors: “Okay, pretend this is you if it’s 1907, your mother died, and you realize you are in this line of succession, and the best way to achieve status and avenge your mother is to kill all your relatives, and…GO!” In that sense, I’d say I’ve been playing Monty since the day I was born. How’s that for artsy and meta?
KRL: What has been the most rewarding and the hardest about this role?
Blake: Well, obviously Monty Navarro is a dream role. There’s not one role written like it in all of musical theatre with as much genius and perfection. No other musical uses a character for 95% of the show. Some directors may put the MC on stage to witness the entirety of his Cabaret, or the Balladeer can be used to specifically relate to the audience and their perception of each character in Assassins, but no musical has created a role specifically designed to never leave the stage. It happens a whopping three times throughout the entire musical. None of which more than a minute.
The night before rehearsals started on September 4 I had landed at JFK after doing a bunch of character work at the Utah Shakespeare Festival; I was four different pirates in Treasure Island and Harry the Horse in Guys & Dolls. Let’s just say playing an operatic tenor, took some adjustment. In our first few rehearsals and run throughs, I was getting very worried about my vocal stamina, so I made a point to our director, Peggy Hickey, her associate, Adam Cates, and our music supervisor, Paul Staroba (who took part in writing some of the show’s incidental music with composer, Steven Lutvak, and has been with the show since 2009) about reaching out to the previous Monty’s. Jeff Kready, Kevin Massey, and Bryce Pinkham all reached out and gave me their support and thorough pointers on getting through it. Luckily, all of whom made it clear that, starting out, it’s gonna feel like it’s impossible. It was a very “welcome to the Monty family” kind of moment. However, over time the muscles in your body and voice will adjust and you’ll start getting used to its insanity. Luckily, they were right and I’ve been living my dream every night.
Bryce put it best when we chatted on the phone. He basically said that there’s a reason I was put in this part and that I get to go out on that stage and do what I’ve always known I can do, but before now had never gotten the chance to do. Own it. James gets to do an incredible number of characters that I’ve been amazed watching ever since the first day. His freedom to play on stage and tell the story is nothing less than exciting and invigorating. However, Monty’s arch is the entirety of the musical. It all revolves around what he wants and how far he’s willing to go to get it. And, in the world of GGLAM, there’s practically no limitations and that’s what’s exciting for audiences. That’s what Bryce meant: you’ve never done a musical where the audience’s imaginary limitations start and end with your character, so own every single moment you’re up there and always remember to include every person sitting in that audience—they’re your accomplices.
KRL: Any fun stories to share about touring?
Blake: Well, the fun thing about touring is that not everything goes right. I’ve had a couple nights with a tired voice where sometimes you gotta dig deep into vocal technique land and rely on your incredible sound mixer, John Emmett O’Brien, to crank it up and keep you sounding good. We’re all human and this part is nuts, it happens. Teamwork makes the dream work. I could go into a couple times when things go wrong but some of those are less fun and more a behind the scenes look into what makes live theatre really feel like “Help. Live theatre, folks.”
What’s fun is how we all get to interact on tour. We take one bus between the orchestra and the cast which leads to lots of…shenanigans. We had a really troublesome leg of shows right out of the gate; lots of one nighters into smaller venues with things cut and sharing rooms and just making it work; lots of, “Help. Live theatre, folks” moments. But through the blood, sweat, and tears of the insanity of putting a touring show up, comes lots of laughs and camaraderie that brings you closer to your cast. It’s fun when we land at a hotel with just enough time to throw a mini-Halloween party complete with a costume contest. It’s fun when the Stanley Theatre in Utica, New York, throws a catered opening night party to get a chance to let our hair down and connect with the community that goes above and beyond to bring us in and for us to thank them for their incredible energy and generosity. Madison, Scranton, Utica, and Syracuse went above and beyond taking care of their artists and anytime we get to share a mutual “thank you” with our audience, it’s worth it to take time to let that sink in.
KRL: What is your typical day like on the road?
Blake: We get up anywhere from 7 a.m-11 a.m. with about a half hour to get our luggage on the bus and situate ourselves on the bus for the travel day ahead. Quiet hours last until noon, and we have a lunch stop somewhere around 1-3 p.m., usually somewhere with more than three or four choices, but flexibility is key. Kristen Kane, who plays Miss Shingle, is a vegan, which I know can be frustrating for her when it comes to finding viable options, but she does a lot of prepping her own. Lots of our cast use Yelp to find restaurants away from the normal chains and to ensure they’re, at the very least, eating something good.
I’m not too picky but I like to eat something with some nutritious value. McDonalds has yet to make an appearance (but I’m not above it). We get back on the bus, and we vote on a movie to watch. It’s a choice of three usually, but we’ve started adding the option of no movie, which oddly enough turned one of our last bus rides into quite the party. Music, various games of Heads Up on phones, card games, and just an overall sense of…“uh…okay, now what?” It can also depend on the day. Driving INTO a show is awful and driving into a TWO SHOW DAY is the WORST. This isn’t necessarily a show that’s designed to be done in that manner, so when we did that in October, there weren’t a lot of happy campers, myself included. Those are quiet bus rides. But for good reason! We haven’t had any mishaps other than some bus issues a couple weeks in. One bus broke down on our way INTO a show, which led to shuttles, which led to party busses, which eventually, about a week later, led to a longer term replacement. Luckily our cast is an incredibly well-adapted group who handles insanity with ease. I mean, look at the show we do every night.
KRL: What do you think audiences like the best about this show?
Blake: I’d say the element of surprise. I often have friends who’ve come to see the show who tell me they know nothing about it, and I say, “Good!” That’s the best way to see this show. Even when you know the show there are things that can surprise you. It’s a fast-paced show that really drives exceedingly well and tells a very specific story in such a stylized manner. There’s a lot to like about that scenario. It’s two-and-a-half hours including intermission but each act flies by because of how much is artfully throw into each one.
The story is pretty simple at its core, but not without exposition and jokes sprinkled into every little scene. And each D’Ysquith, played flawlessly by James Taylor Odom, carries an entirely different energy, mannerism, and point of view on the world than the last. There’s always a new reason to enjoy their utter demise. Not to mention the overarching love triangle between Monty, Sibella, played by Colleen McLaughlin, and Phoebe, played by Erin McIntyre. Both ladies have become incredibly close since we started rehearsals. The four of us have spent a lot of time getting to know one another and becoming comfortable working together. I have a different opinion of each of James’ characters, and I think it really comes through because of how well he assumes each of his roles so effortlessly. The chemistry between the two ladies makes every moment a blast. James is the nice guy that the two ladies love talking to and siding with because I’m the one who likes playing pranks on messing with the two ladies offstage. Every scene we have is filled with winks and nods and fun little moments that we’ve created to keep our relationships fresh, exciting, and laughably frustrating to no end. I think audience can feel that frustration when we sing the song everyone recognizes, “I’ve Decided to Marry You” or the “Doors” number. There’s no song like it in all of musical theatre. There has never been a song that has combined such a complex, gorgeous score with quick-witted lyricism and the athleticism of such specific and hilarious choreography. There’s a reason it’s the one number that most people recognize and is used so frequently for live press events.
KRL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Blake: I think it’s safe to say that there’s a lot happening in the world right now that can make people feel scared, stressed, or just plain too serious too much of the time. A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder has literally nothing to do with ANY of that. Truly. It’s a story about a guy who overcomes a great amount of adversity in the most absurdly comical and unbelievable way possible. You get to see two guys sweating profusely telling a story with a ton of heart and an even more gargantuan amount of murder. And all of it is sung to one of the most luscious scores in any contemporary musical ever written. It has something for all ages (provided their over ten, or under ten and enjoy watching Ace Ventura & Austin Powers), and it’s the best thing to use to get away from the stresses and worries of everyday life. You won’t have to pay any taxes while you’re there. Your team will still be playing when you get back home, and if they aren’t, they probably won ,and you won’t have to stress about watching them losing in the first three quarters until their inevitable comeback. We’ve worked hard. Blood, sweat (and I mean, SWEAT), and tears. All for you to have the most fun possible at the “convoluted abomination” that is A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder. We truly can’t and won’t have a good night performing it without you in the audience. You’re more necessary than you’ll ever know.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder performs in Fresno November 28 and 29 at the Saroyan Theatre in Fresno. Tickets can be purchased on the Broadway Fresno website.
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