“When the script is so well written; you just have to say the lines and believe what you are saying.” Actor James Patterson is commenting on his current performance as LumiÃ¨re in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which he is portraying at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars. It is a role Patterson has made a name for himself in, having just this summer finished a wildly acclaimed run at Maine State Music Theatre and having played the part on national tour, together with that of Gaston and on occasion, the Beast. A versatile musical theatre actor, Patterson has spent the more than two decades on Broadway, national tour, television, and in leading regional houses across the country creating a wide range of repertoire that showcases not only his classically trained voice, his dramatic and
comedic gifts, but also that indefinable spark inherent in all charismatic artists – the ability to hold an audience in his grasp from start to finish.
The New Jersey-born actor, who was raised in El Paso, Texas, recalls that in growing up he never foresaw his life’s path would take him to the stage. “I always sang in choirs and took voice lessons in high school and participated in interscholastic singing competitions, but my high school didn’t really have many theatrical opportunities. It was only when I tried out for an inter-school musical production of Bye Bye Birdie in my senior year that I was introduced to the magic. I was lucky to land the title role of Conrad Birdie, and it was then that a little light went off inside me.”
Patterson explains that when he entered Tufts University as a freshman his academic goal was to study international relations, something - he wryly comments in an aside -that he is not sorry did not work out. “I auditioned for Tufts’ Torn Ticket production [the student run musical theatre society], and I became so involved that I realized I was not as interested in my other courses as I was in musical theatre. Some friends pointed me to the New England Conservatory of Music, and I eventually decided to become a five-year student, taking courses at both Tufts and NEC and getting two undergraduate degrees in voice and in drama.” The switch from international relations to drama at Tufts came gradually, as Patterson says, the more he immersed himself in theatre, the more he wanted to “go whole hog.”
At the Conservatory, Patterson trained as a lyric baritone. “I knew my voice wasn’t as big as some of the others; I knew I wasn’t going to be singing the big Verdi roles, but I loved the classical repertoire. I saw myself singing art song and some of the lighter pieces. But I was also drawn to the sensibility of musical theatre. I loved the joy it brought and the people I was meeting. I did want to stay at the Conservatory, though, because I felt I really needed to get a solid technique in order to preserve the longevity of my voice. Classical music gives you the foundation to do anything.”
Asked to characterize his voice and the development he has made as a singer from Conservatory to Broadway stage, Patterson says. “I didn’t really come into my sound until my late twenties. I am a high baritone with a good extension. I can hit the upper notes and I was excited when I did, but it was stressful wondering if I was going to crack. And honestly the real richness in my voice is in the baritone range; it was there I felt I could communicate a song better.” As with all musical theatre performers, Patterson had to learn to belt. “When I came to New York after graduation, I was auditioning with a big heavy sound that wasn’t really the best fit for a young person in his twenties. With the help of some great voice teachers, I learned to lighten my sound.”
Similarly, Patterson added dance to his triple threat talents late in the game. “At Tufts I had a very wise college advisor, Sherwood Collins, who was very supportive of my going into musical theatre (because Tufts’ program is more play-based). He told me, ‘James, you have to get yourself to a dance class because you move as if you have a corn cob up your butt.’ I did, and in my final year studied at the Jeannette Neil Dance Studio in Boston. I decided I could make an idiot of myself in class then or later at an audition, and then I would probably not get the job. So I elected to do it in class. There was a lot of falling down, but I had some really wonderful teachers who pointed me in the right direction.”
After being graduated from Tufts and NEC, Patterson moved to the New York metropolitan area, living at his grandmother’s home in Harrington Park, NJ, and commuting in each day. “I owe her everything, God rest her soul,” he says. “She made it possible for me to get a start and save money by not paying rent.”
Very shortly after his arrival in the city in 1996, Patterson landed a gig at Westchester Broadway Theatre in the Tommy Walsh directed production of Good News, and not long after “the stars lined up” for him to make his Broadway debut in State Fair. The opportunity came serendipitously when Patterson was taking dance class with choreographer Randy Skinner, who invited him to audition. Patterson went on to play Gus and Fairtone on the Great White Way and then on national tour.
Reflecting now on that fortuitous start, Patterson says, “I almost wish it had happened a little later. I don’t think I was emotionally mature enough to understand the honor it was. It was a little while then before I got onto Broadway again, and by that time I realized how special that debut had been.” Patterson has returned to Broadway for Beauty and the Beast, understudying the Beast, Gaston, and LumiÃ¨re and dancing in the ensemble, and most recently in Gigi as Dufresne and understudy for HonorÃ©. He took State Fair and Beauty and the Beast on national tour, as well as playing leading roles in the national tours of Mary Poppins, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Cats.
“I love working on Broadway and being in the city where I live is blessing. However, I also love regional theatre in a very special way. Broadway is often encumbered by the constraints of producers, backers, audience expectations; there are so many financial risks that they cannot always do exactly what they please. In a regional theatre with a great subscription base, there can often be more artistic freedom. I love going to different towns and companies and playing for different audiences. I always hope we inspire new people to become involved in the theatre, especially if it is calling to them.”
Asked where some of his favorite regional houses are, Patterson replies: “I am always happy to go to the Fulton Theatre [Lancaster, PA] and to Maine State Music Theatre [Bruswick, ME]. They are so generous there and let me try different things. I have a soft spot for the Forestburg Playhouse in Monticello, NY. It reminds me of the Fulton and MSMT in the way that the town supports the theatre and how through outreach and mutual support, the theatre is blossoming and expanding.”
Trying his hand at many varied roles appeals to James Patterson. He has performed a great many so-called legitimate musical theatre parts. In addition to those mentioned above, he has been seen in Carnival, White Christmas, The Music Man, An American in Paris, Guys and Dolls and Mame. He has even appeared in The Comte d’Ory at the Metropolitan Opera and Dames at Sea at the Kennedy Center. Patterson says he believes “The quality of my voice lends itself to some of these classics. I do love contemporary musical theatre; I can sing that style and pop, too, but the way I hear myself and understand a phrase of msic or a lyric is more in tune with my classical training and classical music.”
Patterson is also sensitive to preserving the sensibility of older works. “Nowadays there is a tendency to over contemporize a piece, and I think that undercuts the work. The timing of a line delivery was different in the 1950s than in the 1980s than now, and young actors are often not taught that. Back in my day to learn comedy, I watched the Carol Burnett Show or I Love Lucy. Today young artists sometimes don’t know who these pioneers were!”
Citing his recent experience in Gigi, he gives another example of the delicate task of today’s directors/producers in striking the right tone for a revival on Broadway,. “I had a really good time working with so many talented people, but at the end of the day there were so many contsraints that the result was mixed. “Today we don’t understand what a courtesan was. The closest thing we have today is a prostitute, but Colette was writing about something very different and rather dark. The mother and aunt in her story are breeding Gigi to become a courtesan, and she is much younger than Gaston. Casting Vanessa Hudgins, who has a very young following, as Gigi, and reducing the age difference between her character and Gaston’s to suit modern notions of what is acceptable may have been wise ideas for young-teenaged
contemporary audiences, but it somehow didn’t work. I always thought that rather than making it pretty, they had made it darker, it would have been more interesting.”
Experimenting with content and tone in revivals can be tricky, but Patterson finds doing this experimentation in developing a new work from scratch is absolutely energizing. He has a number of such exciting projects on his resume, among them two recent large-scale projects, Chamberlain A Civil War Romance at MSMT in 2014 and the world premiere of Treasure Island A Musical Adventure at the Fulton Theatre in 2018. Both these last were directed by Marc Robin (Treasure island co-directed with Curt Dale Clark) and proved exciting vehicles for Patterson’s talents. “Steven Alper and Sarah Knapp’s Chamberlain [in which Patterson played the title role] was “one of the toughest shows I have ever been part of and one of the most rewarding. By doing the piece I discovered who Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain [great Civil War General, Governor of Maine, President of Bowdoin
College] was and what an amazing human being!” Patterson says he loves the process of working with a living playwright and composer, figuring out the voice of a new show, and trying new things. I love watching how decisions are made and what stays and what gets cut.”
He admits it can be stressful when new music or pages are thrown at an actor each day in the development process, but he tries to keep in mind the greater goal of “the good of the show.” He recounts how in Chamberlain the creative team [Alper and Knapp] arrived toward the end of rehearsals to find their work restructured into something more cinematic than they had originally envisioned in the 1996 world premiere.. “I give them a great deal of credit. It takes a generous ego to put oneself aside and to allow the story to be retold in a different way. They were so kind and supportive and behind us the whole way.”
Similarly, he talks about Robin’s coming to Patterson, who was playing Dr.Livesey, after one of the final developmental readings and explaining why he believed he had to cut one of the character’s solos. “I said to Marc, ‘This is your story –[Robin and Clark are the co-authors of the work as well]. I am just lucky to be one of the people telling it. If the cut is for the good of the show, that is all that matters.‘ You cannot take that sort of change personally.”
In each of the above productions, Paterson proved ideal in the leading roles of Chamberlain and Dr.Livesey, both of which called for powerful, classically trained vocal resources and the ability to project as a singer over lush, grand epic scores. Then, too, they required a sense of historical bearing, a dignity-and- larger than life presence and a sweeping sense of style. To both Chamberlain and Treasure Island Patterson brought that charisma and genuineness that spoke to truly memorable characterizations.
But Patterson is a deft comedien as well. He recalls his first starring comic role as Harold Hill in The Music Man at the Cabillo Theatre in San JosÃ©, CA, with great fondness. Harold Hill, of course, has to sing in that glorious legit style, but he also needs cheeky charm and infectious, loveable naughtiness. “The part has so much heart, and it requires a voice to do those iconic numbers. I always try to honor the interpreters who have gone before me at the same time putting my own spin on it.”
In the same way Patterson has made the roles in Beauty and the Beast – especially that of LumiÃ¨re -very much his own. Beginning by understudying the Beast, Gaston, and LumiÃ¨re on Broadway and going on a few times, he continued to play the parts a great deal on national tour and subsequently reprise LumiÃ¨re at the Fulton theatre,MSMT, and Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars among others. The reception for “Be Our Guest” at MSMT, which I was privileged to witness on several show stopping occasions, was one of those heady theatre memories that lasts forever. No sooner did the dazzling, tap dancing number complete with everything from Fosse to Can-Can come to spectacular close than the audience was on its feet cheering in mid performance. I ask what fuels that sort of incandescent performance for him.
Modestly, Patterson replies: “I was such a Disney fan growing up,” he recounts. “It is such a beautiful story, and everytime I get to tell it, it is wonderful! The opulence of the Fulton-MSMT productions made me feel as if I were in a different world.”
And of LumiÃ¨re with his glittering gold Rococo outfit, towering white with gold-flecked wig, large candlestick arms, and note-perfect Maurice Chevalier homage accent and delivery, what makes this character step away from its two-dimensional animated inspiration and etch itself indelibly in our hearts?
“I like to think of LumiÃ¨re as yourself on your happiest day,” says James Patterson. “Even when things seem bad, he always sees light at the end of the tunnel. He has such a big heart.”
And it is that heart-that empathy that defines James Patterson’s sense of vocation as an actor. Asked why in the tumultuous world we live, acting is his passion and calling, he replies, “I love talking to people after a show and seeing how it has impacted them. I recently had an experience at the Fulton where a woman, who had just lost her husband, told me that my LumiÃ¨re made her forget her sadness for a little while. If you can truly give someone else joy and the permission to feel certain emotions – to experience them with you, that is what makes me the happiest.”
Audio: Treasure Island excerpt Act 1 as Dr. Livesey with Michael Ianucci & Michael Nigro
Video: Be Our Guest
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