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Loose Lips

Fela!'s Kevin Mambo, Memphis' Chad Kimball, and Loaded's Kevin Spirtas chat about their new gigs. logo
Kevin Mambo in Fela!
(© Monique Carboni)
Kevin Mambo is both a musician in real life and an expert at playing musicians -- having won two Daytime Emmy Awards for his work as jazz musician Marcus Williams on CBS' now-defunct soap opera Guiding Light. So he was a natural choice to alternate in the title role of the new Broadway musical Fela!, even though the Zimbabwe-born actor only first heard the work of the legendary African performer a few years ago.

"He somehow never crossed my path until about four years ago," says Mambo. "But the more I listened to him, and read about him, and studied him, the more his music just became infectious. One day, one of my friends said to me, 'you could play him,' and I started working on my own concert-type show about him. I had heard about this show and they had heard about me, so I auditioned for it Off-Broadway. But I decided to do Ruined instead of being the understudy."

One of the many skills Mambo brings to the table is his familiarity with the saxophone; and while it appears that he's playing the instrument on stage, it's an illusion. "I started playing the saxophone when I was 10. In all these pictures of me growing up, you can tell how I'm aging by the proportion of the size of the saxophone to the size of my body," he says. "But as far as the show is concerned, playing the sax is demanding, and I need to keep whatever wind I can. The first time I did a full performance, I remember thinking: 'Where am I going to get the wind to do Act 2?'"

It helps that Mambo lost nearly 50 pounds in recent months to play the wiry Fela; and his skin-tight costumes give him the necessary motivation to keep the weight off. "Every time I want to put a pastry in my mouth, I think about those pink pants I wear in the second act," he says. "That was part of Fela's thing -- to wear these unique designs on the stage. All of my costumes are handmade, and I tell you, after this show, it's going to be really difficult to buy clothes off the rack."

Next Page: Chad Kimball

Chad Kimball in Memphis
(© Joan Marcus)
In case you're wondering, Chad Kimball, who plays deejay Huey Calhoun in the Broadway musical Memphis, has actually walked in Memphis. But even though he's been part of this show -- off and on -- for the past six years, his first visit to the Tennessee city didn't occur until earlier this year. "We went over the summer and it was exactly what I needed for the part," he says. "I got to sing for a bunch of Memphians; I met people who knew Dewey Phillips, one of the DJs that Huey is based on, and heard some personal anecdotes about him; and I got to do research on Beale Street."

As Kimball freely admits, Calhoun is a very colorful character -- and a very colorfully dressed one. "His sense of fashion is as eclectic as his personality," says Kimball. "Our designer, Paul Tazewell, is such a genius. He puts so much of his concept for the character into his designs. My input has basically been limited to "am I really wearing that?"

Part of Calhoun's colorful nature is his vocabulary; specifically his catchphrase -- "hockadoo." Can Kimball define the word? "It's not in the dictionary, but I think it would be great if it ended up in Merriam-Webster next year," he says. "It's just something Huey came up with, sort of a tribal scream of pleasure and positivity. It's not meant to be an expletive, though I guess it could be used that way. The greatest part about it is all the things that rhyme with it, like hockaflu or hockashoe. I think Cass Morgan [who plays Huey's mother] and I ran the gamut on those one day during rehearsal."

Kimball says he won't tire of saying hockadoo on stage or singing Huey's big number "Memphis Lives In Me" anytime soon, even if the actor made the song even more challenging for himself. "I had to come in to reaudition for the role when Chris Ashley took over as director," he says. "I didn't really know him, so I thought I'd try to impress him by going up to a G in the song. And now I have do that every night!"

Next Page: Kevin Spirtas

Scott Kerns and Kevin Spirtas in Loaded
(© David Morgan)
Kevin Spirtas wants to make it clear that art is not imitating life for him in Loaded, Elliot Ramon Potts' new two-character play about gay men, now at the Lion Theatre. "This role is a very big undertaking for me," says Spirtas. "My character, Patrick, is torn and abused and so lost in his own anger that he thinks he's always going to stay broken, and I don't necessarily have those issues. And even though I don't agree with all the content in the play, I feel like there are individuals who have the kinds of attitudes and beliefs these characters share and that should come to the forefront."

Spirtas is also pleased to be sharing the stage with co-star Scott Kerns. "I'd never heard of him before or even seen him, and I'm very impressed," he says. "We auditioned separately and were each paired off with different people, but when they brought the two of us in together, it clicked. In fact, I instantly had the feeling that Scott was right for the show. He's a very talented young man."

The play is a theatrical change of pace for Spirtas, whose credits include such musicals as A Chorus Line and The Boy from Oz and who has performed his own one-man show around the country. "I don't do any singing -- other than a bad Barbra Streisand imitation for one second; I don't even hum or snap my fingers," he says. "I am inspired by not having to be supported by entrance music."

The actor also notes that Loaded is rather different from his work as Dr. Craig Wesley on NBC's Days of Our Lives. "When you deal with issues like sexuality or abuse on a soap opera, it tends to be in very broad terms. But here, the paintbrush is very fine," he says. "Still, being on a soap opera was great -- it gave me a platform for my next phase of creativity -- and I'd go back if they asked me."


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