GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Kyle Brown of 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert'
Two and a half years ago Kyle Brown made his Broadway debut in Legally Blonde at the same theater, the Palace, where he's now performing in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Like Legally Blonde, Priscilla is a stage musical adapted from a popular nonmusical movie. And like Legally Blonde, Priscilla is a crowd-pleaser where audiences giddily await—and respond to—moments they remember from the film. "Priscilla's in a similar vein in that, even if you're tired, when you step on stage in front of that crowd, the way they react gets you through it," says Brown, who turned 26 the same week Priscilla opened in late March.
But for a male ensemble member, Legally Blonde isn't the most exciting show: Elle Woods' sorority sisters get most of the big chorus numbers. That certainly isn't the case with Priscilla: When the principals need backup, it's usually the men in the chorus who provide it. Of course, since the principals are drag queens, the men in the chorus are sometimes dressed as women. Or as cupcakes ("MacArthur Park"). Or paintbrushes ("Color My World"). Or...well, who knows exactly what they're supposed to be during "I Will Survive," with those extravagant headdresses, exposed chests and pant legs that flair out at the bottom into huge foot pods; Brown says the company calls those getups "the Gumbys" for their resemblance in shape to the claymation character.
In all, Brown goes through about 15 different costumes in Priscilla. He's dressed as a showgirl for Bernadette's (Tony Sheldon) Act 2 flashback to his Les Girls days, a giant package of Minties candy for "Boogie Wonderland" and a greenish emu in the finale. Brown is the muscley guy in red during the opening number, "It's Raining Men," and the first Lars who comes out of the bus for "Go West." And at the funeral early in Act 1, he wears a tutu and dances en pointe to "Don't Leave Me This Way." That's Brown's favorite number in the show, and not just because he has a solo. "I love the way the song builds," he explains. "I think it's really well-executed as far as storytelling with that song and the choreography. It's really exciting every night to have that curtain fly up and all those costumes be revealed and we just strut downstage. You can hear the audience getting into it as the beat kicks in."
Once upon a time, Brown was the audience member who got instantly psyched by Priscilla's razzle-dazzle. He went to see Priscilla on a trip to London in 2009 (the year it opened on the West End, after world-premiering in Australia in 2006). "I remember sitting in the audience, and when the disco ball drops [at the beginning], I was like: 'I have to be in this. I have to be in this; this is the show for me,'" says Brown. "It's just so fun—for an audience member and I knew it would be fun to perform every night." Coincidentally, a couple of days after Brown saw the show and while he was still in London, his agent called him about auditioning for the American production.
At 6-foot-2, Brown is one of the tallest guys in Priscilla's chorus, and since many numbers are, in his words, "kick line-ish"—which means shorter dancers fan out from the taller ones—he's often center stage. He's also noticeable for his physique, which he maintains through a daily regimen of "strengthen and lengthen": hot yoga in the morning, and at least an hour of weight training in the p.m. "Standing next to Nick Adams, amongst the other guys in the show, will make you work harder, that's for sure," says Brown.
His only experience with cross-dressing prior to Priscilla was performing "Today 4 U," a song sung by drag queen Angel in Rent, in high school. Brown wasn't that familiar with the Priscilla movie, either. He says he found the film "weird" when he saw it on video years ago and couldn't even watch it straight through without repeatedly stopping and restarting. He rewatched it before auditions. "I still think it's fairly strange," he comments. "It's definitely not as joyous as the musical."
Brown was in Priscilla during its Toronto run last fall. He didn't meet Bette Midler then, though the Divine Miss M is one of the producers who brought the show to North America and she attended several performances in Toronto. In New York she's been "super-friendly" with the cast, Brown reports. "She's had a lot to say about the show and she's had a lot of influence on it, as far as giving the director ideas of where to take things for an American audience. She has a good idea of how to put a show together, obviously—the diva herself."
Brown's last stint at the Palace was short-lived, as he joined Legally Blonde only six weeks before it closed in late 2008. But he went on to do the tour for a year and a half. In the Broadway company, he replaced original cast member Matthew Risch—whom Brown has unintentionally made a habit of following. He attended the same arts boarding school in Massachusetts as Risch (who's four years older) and went to the same college, CCM.
Brown left his home in upstate New York to enroll at Walnut Hill, located in Natick, Mass., outside Boston, for the last two years of high school. (He'd wanted to go the year before, but his widowed mom wouldn't let him.) "It is, to this day, one of the best experiences of my life," Brown says. "I grew up in a very small town, and there definitely wasn't a lot of open-mindedness. So going to someplace like Walnut Hill, it's such a creative, fertile environment and you're allowed to be who you want to be and figure that out. It was really beneficial to me as a gay kid to go there and realize, 'This is okay.' 'Cause where I grew up, it was not okay."
In his hometown of Amsterdam, N.Y., about 30 miles northwest of Albany, Brown could sense the eyebrows raising when he began taking ballet (the only boy in class) at age 13. His first dance training was in tap—necessitated by his lead role in a grade-school production of George M. Cohan's 45 Minutes From Broadway when he was 9. He'd started performing when he played Little Boy Blue in kindergarten, and at 6 he had a part in The King and I at Galway Players, a community theater in a nearby town. Throughout his childhood, Brown performed at the Galway Players and another area theater, the Glove, in such shows as Peter and the Wolf, Cinderella, The Wizard of Oz and Mame.
He also participated in competitions with his dance studio and made an occasional trip to New York City with them. They'd see the show at Radio City Music Hall or whatever had a lot of dancing on Broadway, like Fosse and Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk—though the very first play he saw on Broadway was Phantom of the Opera ("Ask that question to anyone my age and it's always Phantom or Les Miz," he laughs).
While he didn't always feel comfortable in the conservative small town where he grew up, "I have a very good support system at home," states Brown, the youngest of six siblings. His father died when he was 3, and his mother never dated afterward. "She raised all of us by herself, she did it all on her own. She had no outside life; her kids were her life, and she loved that. She would literally do anything for every single one of us to make our lives easier and make us happy.
"No matter what happens, my mom is like my rock," he continues. "She has taught me and inspired me to be the person that I am today with her strength and love." And he can thank his mom for getting him into community theater in the first place, as she noticed him "watching that VHS of Mary Martin playing Peter Pan every day—I literally would sit in front of the TV and recite every word of it. I think she saw that and was like, 'He needs to get this energy out somewhere.'" Brown still gets a kick out of remembering when he stepped on stage at his first performance of Legally Blonde at the Palace and immediately spotted his mother in the orchestra. "The first thing I saw was her beaming face," he says.
Just as Brown was finishing high school up in Massachusetts, he was offered a part on the tour of Fosse, which by then had become non-Equity. But he'd already been accepted to the prestigious and highly selective University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music and considered that "a larger opportunity." He consulted the head of CCM's musical theater program, Aubrey Berg, before turning down the Fosse job, and Berg referred him to Jim Wilhelm—who would eventually become Brown's agent—for advice. Wilhelm told him that if he could get cast in a show like Fosse at that point, he'd get offers when he was done with school, and it would only benefit him to have the kind of training CCM provides.
By passing on Fosse, Brown gave up not only a professional gig but also the chance to do his favorite kind of musical theater. He'd fallen in love with the Fosse style during the two years in high school that he trained at the Broadway Theatre Project, a three-week summer program in Florida co-founded by Ann Reinking. "Bob Fosse and all of his shows are a huge inspiration for me," says Brown. "His style of choreography is something that I would love to do."
He's also a fan of Fosse and other choreographers of that era because their work "wasn't so much about technique, it was about musicality, it was about storytelling," Brown says. "I love being in an ensemble where I get to dance as much as I do in this production [Priscilla], but more than anything I love to storytell. I love to be able to change someone's emotional state through what I get to bring on stage."
At CCM, Brown got to storytell in such acting-heavy roles as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins and Professor Bhaer in Little Women. His Jo in Little Women was classmate Sara Sheperd, who's now his roommate in NYC (she was in Cry-Baby on Broadway and last year played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at the Drury Lane outside Chicago). While in New York for his CCM senior showcase in the spring of 2008, Brown auditioned for Fosse's Chicago, as well as the Legally Blonde tour. He was cut in the first round at the Legally Blonde audition but later found out that director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell had been watching and Mitchell let people know that he wanted Brown to take over the role of Carlos—the guy who outs Brooke Wyndham's alleged lover Nikos while Nikos is testifying at Brooke's murder trial—on Broadway (where Blonde had opened the year before). Brown was in the show by summer's end.
First, though, he went up to Beverly, Mass., to be in The Producers at North Shore Music Theatre (a job he'd booked before he graduating from college) and then did a second summer at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. At CLO in 2008, Brown was in West Side Story, Annie Get Your Gun and Peter Pan. During his first season there, the summer of 2006, he'd earned his Equity card, with roles in Beauty and the Beast (pepper shaker), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (middle brother Daniel), Grease and 42nd Street. In 2007, Brown spent the summer at St. Louis Muny, appearing there in Oklahoma, The Pajama Game and Hello, Dolly! That Dolly, which was directed by Lee Roy Reams (a CCM alum) and starred Randee Graff as Dolly, Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy, and Jennifer Cody as Minnie Fay, remains one of Brown's favorite jobs he's had. They did Gower Champion's original choreography for the show, and Brown also got to dance the golden-age choreography that he adores in CLO's West Side Story, which used Jerome Robbins' original work (Brown played a Shark), and in Oklahoma at the Muny, as choreographed originally by Agnes de Mille. Brown also did de Mille's original choreography for Brigadoon when he was in that musical at CCM.
In Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the challenge for dancers lies in not just doing the choreography but making the costume changes and moving around while wearing some of them. It takes four dressers to change Brown from the tutu in the mere seconds he has between the funeral scene and the next number, "Material Girl." He estimates his fruit headdress for "I Will Survive" weighs nearly 15 pounds. And at one performance in Toronto, while performing "MacArthur Park," he took a bigger step than the hoop inside the cupcake costume allows and just toppled over—yet somehow, probably due to sheer momentum, bounced back onto his feet.
Then there are the dangers involved in bringing audience members on stage to dance during "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," as the ensemble does at the top of Act 2. One night Brown invited a drag queen up. "I thought it would be fun: He was a robust, very tall man who had on a giant blond wig and facial hair. It was so terrifyingly perfect," Brown relates. "So I brought him on stage, and the first thing he says to me is 'I'm so wasted.' We have to do a polka with them! He wiped out—literally, like, 'timber!' on top of me. I somehow managed to pick this guy up and get through the rest of the number."
Priscilla moves some theatergoers with more than just its audience participation, Brown has discovered. "The amount of love we get at the stage door and through fan mail from people who have been seriously affected by our show is astonishing, and pretty cool." The cast has received letters, for example, from a woman who was near-suicidal before seeing Priscilla and says the show helped change her attitude and gave her the courage to leave an unhappy relationship, and from the family of a teen girl who'd been bullied and felt like an outcast, but "they'd seen such a drastic change in her personality, and how positively the show has affected her," says Brown, adding: "It's pretty wild to think that such a semi-silly show can affect someone so much."
Photos of Kyle, from top: in Priscilla Queen of the Desert's opening number, "It's Raining Men"; on his 26th birthday in late March; in yellow pants at center, with other Legally Blonde frat boys (from left) Barry Anderson, Jason Kappus (kneeling) and Jonathan Rayson; in kindergarten, portraying Little Boy Blue, his first stage role; as Professor Bhaer in CCM's production of Little Women with Sara Sheperd, now his roommate; performing "I Will Survive" in Priscilla. [Priscilla Queen of the Desert photos by Joan Marcus]Rousouli,