Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Big Interview: Chris Peluso

Chris Peluso is currently starring as Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat at the New London Theatre.

Chris joined the cast when Daniel Evans’ production transferred from Sheffield to the West End. Last year Chris left New York to make his West End debut as Chris in Miss Saigon (Prince Edward). He understudied Barry Mann, Don Kirshner and Gerry Goffin in the original cast of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (San Francisco/Broadway). 

Chris’ theatre credits also include: Sky in Mamma Mia! (Broadway), Fiyero in Wicked (U.S. tour), Tony in West Side Story (Barrington Stage Company), Marius in Les Misérables (Marriott Lincolnshire), Assassins (Studio 54), Elton John’s Lestat (Palace), The Glorious Ones (Lincoln Center), Ted Hinton in Frank Wildhorn’s Bonnie and Clyde (La Jolla Playhouse) and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (Gulfshore Playhouse).

I recently spoke to Chris about how his casting in Show Boat came about, growing a beard for the role and how the cast welcomed him into the company. We also discussed Miss Saigon, why he never thought he would star in a West End show, wanting to return to Beautiful and his amazing dog Peeti…

After Miss Saigon, did you want to stay in London? Or was the plan to go back to the U.S. until Show Boat came along?
Well as the clock was ticking on Miss Saigon I was thinking, ‘I love London and would love to be able to stay here’. I was thinking about finding an agent here and applying for a tier one visa once I got back. I called up a buddy of mine, Mike Bosner, who is a producer on Beautiful and asked him for agent recommendations. He said, “Talk to my casting director Jill Green”. So I sent her an email asking about agents, she came to see the show and we arranged to meet afterwards. We talked about agents, but then she said “We looking for a new Ravenal for Show Boat, would you be interested in coming in?” I was thinking of moving here anyway so it was perfect. 

My final call back for Ravenal was literally Friday during the day before the Saturday that Saigon closed [laughs]. I left on the Monday for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – because I was visiting family for a week before going back to New York – and didn’t know if I would be coming back! I had no idea that I had got Show Boat. So after moving everything back to the States, on the Tuesday I found out I would have to take it all back to London again. Isn’t that crazy [laughs]? It took a little while to get the visa, so I was about half a week late for rehearsals.

Chris & Gina Beck in Show Boat

That is so crazy! Show Boat hasn’t been seen over here for a very long time, were you familiar with the piece?
Yes I studied it in college, I think I studied the Broadway 90s revival version. I really liked it – I’ve always loved the music. The story can get a little bit long, but this is quite a condensed version we’re doing. It’s a shorter, quicker version which I really enjoy.

What can people who don’t know the show expect? It spans 40 pivotal years in American history!
To me the best part of Show Boat is the gorgeous music. I think it’s one of the best scores out there. Songs like 'Bill', 'You Are Love' and 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man' are really incredible. The story itself, put into historical context, is the next reason to come see it. It was such a cutting edge story for its time. To watch it knowing that makes it a special experience.

Chris in Show Boat
Having studied the show before, what has it been like to take this role on?
I’ve really enjoyed trying to find this role for me. I think there’s a balance of cheekiness, which I guess is a word you use here in London [laughs] – I don’t use that word often! Ravenal has a playfulness. It took me a while to find his sense of humour because he has a dark history and a dark future. Finding the positive sides were more of a challenge than finding the darker sides which I examined first – his alcoholism, his gambling addiction, his self-centred attitude. There are a lot of questions I had to answer.

What has Daniel Evans, your director, been like to work with?
He’s one of the nicest and kindest directors I’ve ever worked with. He has a way about him that makes you want to do better without making you feel terrible about yourself. Unfortunately [laughs], it’s quite a rare thing to have such positive energy from a director. Because of that you trust him and listen to everything he says. You can see his intelligence when he gives notes to others too. He’s very creative and came up with some interesting ways to approach the material.

You’re working alongside the most incredible cast! Most of them had already done the show in Sheffield, did they welcome you into the company?
They were wonderfully welcoming and very much made it not feel like I was just replacing someone. They tried to recreate the roles with me in mind, so I didn’t feel the pressure of trying to copy something – it felt like we were all creating something new together for the first time. Replacing Alistair Brammer in Miss Saigon was a similar experience. We were all in rehearsals, it wasn’t just me and a handful of new people. I think taking over in Miss Saigon was good prep for doing Show Boat. 

We need to discuss your new look because you’ve grown a beard for the role!
I sure have [laughs]! They asked me to grow out my facial hair and were thinking of making it into like a moustache, goatee-type-thing. As I grew a beard they thought it looked good and I said, “Yeah I like it too”. I felt like the goatee might have been a bit too much, so we went with the beard and I’m happy! I’ve never had a beard in real life before. When I look in the mirror I’m still a little bit freaked out by what I see [laughs], but I’m sure as the months go by I’ll get used to it.

Chris with Daniel Evans & Gina Beck at opening night

Let’s go back to Miss Saigon; what was it like to suddenly find yourself as a leading man in a major West End musical?
It was surreal. I got the job and had three weeks’ notice to move my entire life to London. I owned an apartment, I was in a Broadway contract which needed four weeks’ notice… [laughs]. There were a lot of things – I was like, ‘Holy crap, is this even going to be possible? How am I going to move my entire life?’ I had to find a renter and get all my things out of my apartment and move them to Pittsburgh. I had to get my dog over to London too! 

It wasn’t until I got here that I realised how much I loved London and what an incredible opportunity it was. I didn’t have time to dwell on that part of it, I think that was lucky because otherwise I would have put too much pressure onto myself. I realised it was such a rare, unique opportunity and knew I was very lucky. Doing a West End show isn’t something American actors dream of because you don’t think it’s a feasible dream – you always aim for a Broadway show. I just never thought it was possible to do a West End show… I’m having a blast and, to be honest, can’t believe I’m doing another one [laughs]. I’m in shock!

Chris in Miss Saigon
What are the biggest differences between working on Broadway and in the West End?
One of the biggest differences is the warm up, I prefer it over here. In the West End you do a warm up for the full cast before every show. It’s a fifteen minute physical and fifteen minute vocal warm up. When you play a lead in a Broadway show you don’t have much opportunity to talk with the ensemble, you can get and feel kind of isolated. Especially if the role you’re playing doesn’t have much offstage time. Doing the warm up over here gives everybody the opportunity to get together on equal terms and share the stage together. I love that.

As you mentioned earlier, you didn’t move to London alone. What does Peeti (Chris’ dog) think of London?!
Peeti loves London! He actually greatly prefers it to New York – it’s cleaner and there are a lot of nice parks to go to; Hyde Park, Regent’s Park and Hampstead Heath are some of his favourites. He’s allowed in the dressing room at this theatre! It’s the first time in his life that he has been a dressing room dog. It means he can come to the theatre with me, so if anyone comes to the stage door – on a two show day especially – they’ll get to meet Peeti.

You were in the original cast of Beautiful; what was it like to be with that show right from the beginning?
It was another surreal experience. Carole King’s music is just such awesome music, and telling the story of her life was a big task. Everyone knew it was a special opportunity, but I don’t think anyone knew it was going to be the next Jersey Boys-type thing. We definitely didn’t know in San Francisco, and even when we came into New York, what the reaction was going to be. I think we all knew the material we had was special, and there was a pressure to do it right. You don’t want to mess it up! 

I think the producers in particular did an incredible job at putting it all together – finding the right director, finding the right writer. Finding the right people to do a jukebox musical is hard, but they made it seem like it was a play with music. Douglas McGrath (book writer) and Marc Bruni (director) did an excellent job, and then it was incredible to watch Jessie Mueller emotionally craft Carole’s journey throughout the piece. I loved being a part of it and think it’s going to be around for a while… hopefully around in the West End for a while too… and hopefully I’ll get to do it again. I really enjoy the piece. 

Jessie Mueller performing with Carole King

At first Carole wasn’t sure about the show, so it must have been amazing when she finally came to see it and joined you all onstage after the curtain call?
Carole didn’t come to any of the rehearsals and wasn’t really involved at first – I think it’s hard to watch your life, especially if you don’t know how it’s going to be presented. It’s a difficult task – I can’t imagine someone writing a play of my life, I don’t want to see the darker parts of my life performed for thousands of people! It’s an odd thing to think about. But I think once she heard positive feedback she got the courage to come and watch it, and then she became a huge fan and champion of it.

I’m sending you to a desert island and you can only take three musical theatre songs. What are you going to take and why?
Oh man! Three musical theatre songs? Ok, I’m just going to go for my instincts rather than think into it. A song from The Full Monty came into my mind, ‘You Walk With Me’. The song is about you loosing someone you love but they’re still with you… so if I was going to a desert island immediately I would want that song so I could remember that the people who love you are still with you.

Chris at Show Boat press night
Then I would have to go for a more fun one, I don’t want to be depressed the whole time [laughs]. What’s a good fun one? I love The Book of Mormon… actually… even though it makes no sense, I would have to take ‘Anthem’ from Chess because it’s a song I sang for musical theatre auditions growing up. It was the first song I learnt to sing for auditions – it was the last song I sang in college before I left. Even though it’s not my favourite song when I break it down lyrically, there’s something about the grandness of the song and the nostalgia from my own personal life so I would want it with me.

What would be the last one? It has to be something happy and funny! If you were asking me for full scores I would take West Side Story, but it has to be a song that means something to me. Maybe... hmmm no… oh you know what? I’ll go for ‘The Internet Is For Porn’ from Avenue Q. That’s the first ridiculous song that makes no sense that came into my mind. 

Have you started to look ahead beyond Show Boat? You mentioned that you would love to do Beautiful again – maybe you could play Fiyero over here! Is there anything you have your eye on?
Sure! I’ve always loved Wicked. I definitely would love to do Beautiful and play Jerry longer term. After doing Show Boat I would love to tackle a Rodgers and Hammerstein; I would love to play Billy Bigelow in Carousel or Curly in Oklahoma – one of those iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein roles. Because of my visa I have to leave two weeks after Show Boat closes no matter what, but hopefully I’ll be able to get a job which will bring me back… or what I would love to do is get a tier one visa which allows me to come in and out for five years. No matter what I want to try and stay here. I’m in love with London and Peeti loves it too which is the most important thing [laughs]. 

Finally, what has it been like to come over to the West End and have so much support behind you from the theatre fans?
It has been wonderful. The Miss Saigon fans came to see me in Show Boat in the first week of previews – they have been super supportive! Many saw my very first show. It’s such a wonderful and unique thing to the West End theatre community. I think Twitter is really big here as well for the theatre fans; they love to Tweet about what they’ve seen and stay up to date with the actors. It’s a wonderful tool over here. I love the theatre fans in London – they’re really kind people and they’re generous. I get given chocolate all the time which I love!

Chris with Vicky Noon in Wicked

Now that you’ve said that you’re going to get even more!
[laughs] I know! It’s sweet – I never have to find dessert [laughs] because I have chocolate everywhere! Most of the time it’s not from strangers, it’s from fans that I know well. I don’t recommend eating candy from people you don’t know at all… but once they’ve seen you three of four times… [laughs]! 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Show Boat runs at the New London Theatre until 7th January 2017. 
Please visit www.showboatmusical.co.uk for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 2&3: Johan Persson
Photo Credit 4&7: Dan Wooller

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