WASHINGTON — It won four Tony Awards in 2014, including the top prize of Best Musical.
Featuring a Tony-winning book by Robert L. Freedman and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, the show opens in 1909 Britain as Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel) informs Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) that he’s a distant heir to a family fortune. The news quickly creates a love triangle between Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) and Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), but there’s a catch: before Monty gets the inheritance, he has to knock off eight heirs ahead of him in the line of succession, all played by John Rapson.
“It’s a big fat musical comedy farce. It’s a riot and the big crux of the show is the whole family — men, women, old, young, everybody — is all played by one actor, which is yours truly,” Rapson tells WTOP.
Such a role-changing feat is amazing enough in cinema, from Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) to Eddie Murphy in “Nutty Professor” (1996) to Mike Myers in “Austin Powers” (1997). But when you have to do it in a live theater setting with a live audience, it becomes all the more impressive.
How does Rapson physically achieve eight costume changes in a single production?
“With great difficulty, I promise you. It’s wacky backstage. Another one of the jokes of it is that once one goes down, another pops right back up. So my fastest change is I think 16 seconds long, and I travel with my amazing dresser Nadine, and at one point there’s five people helping me out. It’s crazy back there. There’s as much of a show going on backstage as there is going on on-stage.”
Along the way, the Michigan-born actor portrays villain Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, the current Earl of Highhurst; sweet father Asquith D’Ysquith Sr. and his brat son Asquith D’Ysquith Jr.; a belligerent country preacher Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith; charity activist Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, who’s a “big battleship of a woman;” untalented aspiring actress Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey; buff weight lifter Major Lord Bartholomew; and the country squire and beekeeper Henry D’Ysquith.
How does he flip the mental switch going from one character to another?
“The show is so brilliantly written and it’s so exquisitely put together that it’s actually easier than you might think. The characters are so defined in their speech, and we had an excellent rehearsal process where I got to figure out how each of these guys and gals moved, how they spoke and what’s on the page just dictates that perfectly. So some of it’s me, but a lot of it’s how good the piece is in general.”
He says the biggest joy is watching a fresh audience suddenly get the running joke.
“Once the audience kind of gets in on the joke that there’s one guy doing this, the roller coaster is going down the hill and the humor becomes the kind of rolling in your seat, have to wait for laughter kind of stuff that for an actor is the greatest thing in the world. … It’s usually on the third character, there’s this kind of like, ‘Ohhh … This is what this is,’ which is so much fun for me.”
Rapson follows in the role-changing footsteps of Jefferson Mays in the Original Broadway Cast. But aside from the new cast and new Kennedy Center digs, the show looks exactly as it did on Broadway with the choreography of Peggy Hickey and the Tony-winning direction of Darko Tresnjak.
“The murders, which are all these really brilliant set pieces, are the furthest thing from violent. Monty sort of helps all these idiots that I play along into the next world. … He’s not going up and stabbing people in the back. So people actually get excited for the anticipation of what’s going to happen next.”
While the national tour has already hit the likes of Chicago, San Francisco and Minneapolis over its four-month run so far, Rapson says he’s specifically psyched to perform at the Kennedy Center.
“D.C. is obviously huge. I toured with ‘Les Mis’ as well, and I think our opening night at the Kennedy Center is, for me, what I remember as the highlight of the tour. … It’s one of the great theater towns in America, but it’s also just one of the great towns in America, so you feel really lucky to play there and especially to play that space … The outline of the building itself is kind of like a national memory.”