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Article used with special permission by Michael Portantiere and TheaterMainia.com
An Officer and a Gentleman
Nice guy Tom Hewitt stars as Officer Lockstock in the national tour of Urinetown.
By: Michael Portantiere
Tom Hewitt has displayed incredible versatility on stage in shows as varied as Beau Jest, Jeffrey, The Lion King, The Rocky Horror Show, and The Boys From Syracuse. Offstage, he's just about the nicest, sweetest, most unassuming actor you'd ever hope to meet. That's one reason why his friends and colleagues are so thrilled with his triumph as Officer Lockstock in the national tour of the hilariously post-modern musical Urinetown, which recently opened to excellent reviews and boffo box-office in San Francisco.
How sensational has been the show's reception in the City by the Bay? Well, it's been extended through August 31 at the Geary Theater -- home of A.C.T., which initiated the touring production. (Smart move, guys!) During a recent trip to S.F., I spoke with Tom at the theater just a few days after the raves had begun to pour in.
THEATERMANIA: Officer Lockstock is such a great part for you.
TOM HEWITT: You know, it was one of those things. When the agents called me about the audition, I thought, "Awesome!" But it was a little like seeing Tim Curry do Frank 'N' Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. You know, you see that and it doesn't occur to you that it's a role that anyone else could ever possibly play. Jeff McCarthy was so great [in the original production of Urinetown]. Oh, my God! That was one of the most delightful performances I had seen in a really long time, so it never occurred to me that I might replace him. But when the part was offered to me, I jumped at it.
TM: Have you ever toured before? That's a big step, isn't it?
TOM: It is. This is my first big national tour, with a per diem and stuff! No, that's not true: I toured for a year with The Acting Company. That was a great experience; I was right out of school. It was exactly 20 years ago. And then I did a tour of Gigi with Louis Jourdan. He played the Maurice Chevalier role and I played the Louis Jourdan role! That was a big deal. I made a lot of money. But Louis lip-synched his entire role, and you could so tell -- especially during the duets. So, Taina Elg and I took him out to dinner one night and plied him with champagne. We said, "Would you just try to do the duets live? Please?" And he did, and he had fun, so he kept it that way.
TM: How long of a commitment is the Urinetown tour?
TOM: Well, I'm looking at a year. I have some outs, you know, but I haven't made any other plans. We're going to some unusual places. Like Appleton, Wisconsin -- which, according to a lot of people, is a pretty big venue. But Appleton, Wisconsin! That's part of the appeal of this tour. I don't think I'm alone in this among the cast: There's a feeling of mission about the show. You know, "We gotta take the message of Urinetown to the people," however absurd and bizarre that message is. This show is so strange!
Meghan Strange and Tom Hewitt
(Photo © Kevin Berne)
TM: Well, it's fun to watch it encroaching upon the country. New Yorkers are so used to the title of the show by now, yet the articles and reviews of the tour are really focusing on it. I guess it's still edgy compared to, you know...
TOM: ...Thoroughly Modern Millie! Well, God bless the producers of Urinetown for acknowledging the intelligence of the audience and trusting that people will come to see the show. Certainly, when I first saw the title, I was like, "Please!" I was absolutely prejudiced because I thought the show was going to be full of crass potty humor or whatever. Golden showers and blah-blah-blah. But then, seeing that John Rando was associated with it made me think again. I had worked with Rando at the Berkshire Theatre Festival once and had a great time. He's one of those directors that can really convey a sensibility; in rehearsals, he'll do some little thing, some bizarre gesture, and you say, "Oh!" He's really a great guy, and the combination of him and [choreographer] John Carrafa is terrific. Their sensibilities are very compatible.
TM: On the other hand, did you see Dance of the Vampires?
TOM: Yes. But you can't really blame them entirely, can you? That was just a bad idea to begin with.
TM: Here's hoping they can bounce back from it. While I was watching Urinetown last night, it struck me that you've played so many different kinds of roles. I particularly loved one quote in the interview you did with the Bay Area Reporter, where you said: "For me, playing the handsome guy is character acting."
TOM: It's true. There was that phase in my life, from my mid-20s to late-30s, when I was playing leading men. I was always so grateful when one or more of the other characters referred to my character as handsome, because then the audience would go, "Yeah, okay, he's handsome. I buy it." They have to be told! When I was in Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey, that was the most typically masculine behavior I have ever displayed on stage, except maybe for some classical roles. I think what helped me a lot was getting a good foundation in the classics. The school I went to really focused on that.
TM: Where did you go to school?
TOM: The University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. The program's now in Delaware; it's the exact same faculty but they moved to the University of Delaware. After I graduated, I worked a lot at places like the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and the Guthrie [in Minneapolis]. In those days, almost every regional theater company did at least one classical play a year, so there was a market for me. I was castable! It was great to have the experience of playing larger-than-life characters and I'm sure that fed into my playing Frank 'N' Furter and Scar [in The Lion King]...
TM: ...and Officer Lockstock. Urinetown is a huge hit in San Francisco, and so is your performance.
TOM: The reviews were amazing; I've never seen reviews like that before. I don't think a bad word was written about the show. Again, my appreciation for producers had risen greatly in working on Urinetown. You have to have business sense, you have to have some sort of artistic sense, and you have to be a gambler. I don't have that combination.
TM: The cast is great. Christiane Noll is so funny as Hope Cladwell.
TOM: She's having a ball with it, you can tell. She gets to step out of the little box and be kind of goofy, plus she gets to belt at the end. Girl, she rocks! Ron Holgate [as Caldwell B. Cladwell] is perfect. And Meghan Strange, our Little Sally, is just great.
Bite me! Jenn Morse and Tom Hewitt
in Dracula, The Musical
(Photo © Russell Caldwell)
TM: Now, would it be too painful for you to talk about Dracula, the Musical.
TOM: Oh, my God, it was so much freaking fun. But it was one of the hardest technical rehearsal periods, getting that show together. It was a huge Broadway show in the context of regional theater at the La Jolla Playhouse and they just didn't have the staff or resources to do it. I mean, those vampire women flying all over the place! The basic set looked very simple but a bunch of stuff came in and out -- set pieces and things. And there was this great telescoping effect like the one they used in Titanic. The music was very lyrical and beautiful and haunting. Frank [Wildhorn] wrote in a style that I had never heard before, in sort of a classical mode; there was not one power ballad in the show! They tried to stick very close to the novel, which is hard, because it's written in the form of correspondence. There's really no narrative. Also, the character of Dracula is actually not in the book very much; he appears a lot in the first third of it, then he disappears and they chase him. He'll show up, bite somebody, and then disappear again. That was problematic. And there wasn't a lot of humor in the show. Still, I had a really great time. It's freaking Dracula, man!
TM: Did you do the part with an accent?
TOM: Totally. Maybe a little too much of an accent!
TM: Yet you said that there wasn't a lot of humor in the show. What was the tone?
TOM: Well, at the beginning, when Jonathan Harker shows up in Dracula's castle, I looked remarkably like Gary Oldman in the movie; I had like this huge, white wig with a long, long, braid and this gorgeous, flowing gown. Dracula sort of gets younger as the show goes along so, by the end, I was like a hot vampire daddy. That was groovy! It was heartbreaking that the show didn't go further. I'm an adult, I know that show business is hard and stuff, but I was really sorry to see it disappear. There certainly was an audience for it; you couldn't get a ticket in La Jolla. And when the big paper in San Diego gave it a bad review, there were so many letters to the editor in response that they gave over half a page to them. People wrote in and said, "I don't know what show you saw, but we saw this and we loved it."
TM: Now, tell me about Rocky Horror. That was so entertaining, but I'll bet the audience participation thing got a little out of hand sometimes.
TOM: Jesus, yeah. It was a completely unique experience and I treasured every second of it. You know, it's interesting: There are so many similarities between Lockstock and Frank 'N' Furter. Structurally, they serve the same purpose. They both invite people in, set the tone and the atmosphere. They're sort of in charge of the evening and they have a direct relationship with the audience. Of course, in Rocky Horror they talked to me, and in Urinetown I talk to them. But it feels oddly familiar to me.
TM: Were there times during Rocky Horror when the crowd was really out of control?
Tom Hewitt as Frank ’N’ Furter
in The Rocky Horror Show
TOM: Yeah, that happened early on. One time, Lea DeLaria made her entrance as Dr. Scott and the toilet paper didn't stop. The audience kept throwing rolls and rolls and rolls until the stage floor was completely white. We had to stop and clean it up. At one point, I decided, "Okay, I'm going to throw some back." Well, that was a huge mistake: It just became a free-for-all. But most people were so reverent to me after the show, calling me "Mr. Hewitt." And I got the coolest presents. It was fun to hang out with the disenfranchised theater geeks and with the women my age who thought I was hot-hot-hot! You know, they were originally talking about people like David Bowie for the part. [Director] Chris Ashley asked me if I wanted to audition and I thought, "They're never going to cast me." Plus I was in The Lion King at the time and Disney can be very strict with their contracts, so I didn't think they'd let me out even if I did get Rocky Horror. I actually felt guilty going to the audition because I just went to show off. I didn't have to work on the material; I'd known it since 1975! It was really about having the guts to put on fishnets and a cunning pair of character pumps. That's all it took: The liberty to say, "I have nothing to lose. I'm here to have a good time." I hope to God that stays with me for the rest of my life because it's really the way to go in: "Here's my little show." You do it and then you let it go. It's out of your hands.
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