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INTERVIEW: Chad Kimball Commits to Murder in the First

The talented actor discusses his new Off-Broadway play and his successful fashion line. logo
Ryan Scoble, Chad Kimball,
and Guy Burnet in Murder in the First
(© Joan Marcus)
The melody is right for Chad Kimball again. The Tony-Award nominated actor says the incidental music for his first straight play in New York, Murder in the First, now at 59E59 Theaters, is putting him in the mood for his role as Willie Moore, a prisoner who has been in solitary confinement in Alcatraz for three years and kills another prisoner when he's finally let out.

"Some of the music is just heartbreaking and hearkens back to the 1940s so eloquently," says Kimball. "We open the show with Willie in the center of the stage with this gorgeous trumpet and these dissonant chords. I hear that opening sequence, and it's kind of haunting. I think the audience will be drawn into that immediately."

The fact-based play by Dan Gordon (and based on his 1994 book, which was later turned into a feature film) follows the attempts of Henry Willard Davidson, a young lawyer on his first big case, to get Willie freed from a first-degree murder charge -- while Henry's superiors urge him to make the defense pro forma and simply get Willie sentenced.

"The role is just phenomenal," says Kimball. "In fact, I'm kind of having a hard time negotiating the emotionality of it. It's very straining. We're talking about a guy who's in solitary confinement for three years; getting served food every three days; has 30 minutes of sunlight a year; and is beaten and tortured. What that can do to a human being, I have no idea. But the role itself just seemed so challenging, because who knows about that?"

In fact, he's exercising acting muscles he hasn't used in a while. "I did more plays in college than I did musicals, and I'd much rather do plays," says Kimball, who is also working on a solo CD this summer. "There's more opportunity for creativity. There's more to talk about, more to develop."

Willie is a far cry from the dynamic character of Huey Calhoun that Kimball played in Memphis, a project he worked on for nine years. While he was having "the time of my life," Kimball left the long-running show because of injuries. "I suffered some pretty severe nerve damage, which I didn't know I had for about eight months," he says. "It was pretty debilitating. But now, after leaving the show and continuing with physical therapy and having my mom feed me, I'm pretty much healed."

Memphis was recorded for a DVD and PBS broadcast, and Kimball says he had a hard time watching himself in the HD version. "I'm a sweater," he confides, and then relates a humbling conversation he overheard later that night. "I remember coming out of the restroom after the show, and I walked by these two old men, and I heard them say, 'Well, that Kimball's great, but, boy, has he got a sweat problem!'"

Apart from acting, Kimball is also a successful businessman. He and his brother launched a fashion website five years ago. "I've always had an entrepreneurial side," he says. "It actually started as women's and men's clothing, and we had no idea what we were doing. The first round didn't go so well. The second round went OK. The third round went great. We ended up being in Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's and Macys. And then we switched the entire focus. Now it's called Lolly's clothing, and it comes from my grandmother's nickname. This is the year that we will not only break even, but make a profit."

As he readily admits, his ability to converse about fashion occasionally surprises some of his colleagues. "Sometimes I say things that costume designers would never think a male actor would know, which is kind of funny," he says. "'Maybe you can put a dart in this?' or 'How does this placket look?' We've learned a lot!"

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