Broadway bear Kevin Chamberlin channels Uncle Fester
It is no secret that the cast of the new The Addams Family musical, which began previews last month and opens this week at the Oriental Theater before launching its Broadway run next March, is incredibly gay. Nathan Lane stars as Gomez and homo favorite Jackie Hoffman demands laughs in her role as Grandma. But the production’s gay flavor doesn’t end there, as out actor Kevin Chamberlin takes on the role of Uncle Fester.
But "out actor" is not the only noteworthy label that can be applied to the Tony nominee (twice, for Seussical and Dirty Blonde), whom you may also recognize from recent appearances in Taking Woodstock and the television show Heroes, in addition to gay classics including the film Trick and the 2007 Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s 1970s bathhouse farce The Ritz. He’s also one of the acting world’s most prominent and visible out bears. While the 46-year-old is proud of this distinction, he said it does come with an occasional downside.
"There aren’t a lot of out actor bears in show business, so I’m at an advantage and a disadvantage being incredibly out and out there," Chamberlin told EDGE as he geared up for the weekend’s opening shows.
"It’s strange to not be anonymous when my partner and I go to IBR and Bear Pride here in Chicago. People always want to talk business at these things and I’d rather just enjoy myself, but I do love the bear community. That was the community that I felt welcomed me in during a time when I was first coming out. "
Cleaning up the rough edges
And that love goes on even if the actor’s fellow bears haven’t necessarily been showing up in droves at the stage door after shows at the Oriental - "If they’re coming, I haven’t seen them," the co-founder of MetroBears NYC shared, adding he had been out and about at Sidetrack Musical Mondays and Touche’s bear night.
But obviously his main focus has been on the Addams clan. He said the audiences have been enjoying the show as its pre-Broadway run has allowed the production team the luxury of cleaning up rough edges. He said that nearly a half-hour had been trimmed from the show’s runtime since its first preview and that further edits are constantly being considered as they keep a close eye on what’s been working and what hasn’t.
"Chicago is a smart theater-going community and you can just tell [what audiences like and don’t]," Chamberlin confided. "We have to pump up the plot points in certain areas when it’s confusing but it’s interesting how the demographic of the audience changes the reaction. You can tell when something doesn’t land. The older people are much more familiar with the story than the young kids who only have the movies."
The story, based on the characters originated in the macabre cartoons of Charles Addams dating back to 1938, has indeed seen light many times previously with a television series, three films and a number of spin-offs and video games. But the musical, with a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and a score by Andrew Lippa, is a truly unique endeavor. In this incarnation, Chamberlin, as Uncle Fester, plays the role of narrator - a reference to the belief that Fester represents the story’s original author, Charles himself.
In addition to his research into Charles’ life - that of "an incredibly sweet-natured, always smiling" man, according to extensive conversations with his estate’s handler, Chamberlin said his depiction has borrowed from Jackie Coogan’s characterization of the role in the original television show.
"I never really was a fan of the movies, but I’ve always been fascinated with [Coogan]," Chamberlin shared. "There’s an old saying that ’talent borrows, genius steals, so I’m definitely borrowing from his interpretation of Fester."
The actor said he’s particularly enjoyed the show’s play with humor through inversion, such as a bouquet of flowers being presented best by snapping off the blooming petals. The tone gives the show a sophisticated air and a message that audience members will need to think twice about.
"The show is smart and actually touching, with the message that sometimes you have to go to the deepest, darkest pit of despair to find happiness."
The Addams Family runs through Jan. 10 at the Ford Center/Oriental Theater. Tickets are available by logging onto www.broadwayinchicago.com or calling 800-775-2000.