BWW Interviews: Good Food and a Good Role Beckon Broadway's Ben Davis to Nashville

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Ben Davis isn't even in Nashville yet, and already he's eating like a native: "This morning," he confides in a telephone interview from his home in New York City, "in anticipation of your phone call and our upcoming trip to Nashville, my wife and I had sausage gravy and biscuits for breakfast."

So it should come as no surprise to Nashville-area audiences when they meet the completely charming, handsome and talented Davis-who will be in town to play the role of Captain Georg Von Trapp in Studio Tenn's much-anticipated production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music-that he feels pretty much at home.

Davis' fondness for Nashville comes honest to him. As a member of the national touring companies of Les Miserables (1997) and Spamalot (2008), he performed onstage at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall and spent more than a little time enjoying some of Music City's most venerable restaurants: "I have many visits to the Pancake Pantry in my past," he laughs. "And I think this time we'll be staying closer to the Loveless Café, so I can anticipate a lot of really good food while I'm there."

In fact, Davis says, when on tour actors tend to remember cities by what's on the menu-and that's why Nashville ranks among his favorite tour memories.

For now, however, he's focusing on his upcoming role playing the strict and strident Captain Von Trapp (who is ultimately unmasked as a romantic softy), whose family welcomes a young novitiate into its ranks as a governess who, in turn, brings music, life and love back into the dour household in pre-World War II Austria. It's a role of near-legendary proportions to be certain, Davis maintains, yet it's one he's never had the opportunity to play until now.

"The Sound of Music is such an iconic American classic of the musical theater," he explains. "And I think that's why it's so popular with theater companies and audiences."

And perhaps, Davis suggests, even Oprah Winfrey might be credited with helping to further solidify the musical's place in the American consciousness, thanks to one of the final episodes of her eponymous television talk show which focused on the musical's film cast. "I wonder if that had something to do with it," he asks rhetorically.

"My wife wasn't born when the movie first came out, yet she's seen it often enough over the years that it's one of her favorite movies," Davis says, considering how the story of the Von Trapp Family Singers has influenced American pop culture since the show first debuted on Broadway in 1959. "It's an iconic film and an iconic musical, so I think it's always popular with audiences."

For Davis, who has appeared on Broadway in such critically acclaimed shows as Les Miserables, A Little Night Music and Baz Luhrmann's imaginative staging of La Boheme, taking on the role of Captain Von Trapp is more than serendipitous; rather, it might be a case of perfect timing.

"It's a role I've never done before, but it's definitely going to be a lot of fun," he predicts.

"I was thinking I might be too young for the part at first. I'll be 37 in July," he explains. "But Christopher Plummer was 36 when he did the role on film-so the timing is definitely right."

The Indianapolis native also looks forward to being onstage again with Jessica Grove, the Broadway veteran and old friend who plays Maria Rainer in director Matt Logan's rendition of the time-honored musical theater classic.

BWW-Reviews-Good-Food-and-a-Good-Role-Beckons-Broadways-Ben-Davis-to-Nashville-20010101

"This will be my fifth show with Jessica-we did three shows on Broadway; the first was Les Miserables, when Jessica was 19-and so it's very nice to be onstage with her again since we're old friends," Davis says. Grove concurs, during a separate interview, calling Davis a "member of the family at this point."

"It's been so great to see Jessica grow up in the theater-she's a great gal and her husband's a great guy and now they have a great baby and I'm looking forward to working with her on The Sound of Music."

According to Davis, it was Grove's husband (actor Dan Cooney, who's joining the Broadway company of Mamma Mia as Bill on June 4) who might have planted the seed with Logan to cast him as Captain Von Trapp. "As I understand it," he recalls, "Jessica's husband was talking to Matt about Von Trapp and he mentioned my name as someone Matt should think about."

Insofar as Davis' career is concerned, it's all about the timing-and Cooney's suggestion to Logan is just the latest example. The first stage role for the "kind of a jock" while he was in high school in Indiana was the role of Riff in West Side Story, a role he auditioned for at the behest of his mother, who has been his theatrical catalyst in more ways than one.

"She'd given me a subscription to a Chicago publication," Davis remembers. At the time, he was working for an investment firm, but his mother (who will be making the trip-with his dad and brother-to Tennessee to see him perform at the historic Franklin Theatre in The Sound of Music) had an inkling of what his real calling might be.

"I saw a listing for an audition for Phantom of the Opera coming up in Chicago, so I went in for it," he explains. "I got a callback, but didn't get the part."

However, the casting director remembered Davis and called him about auditioning in New York City for the role that would set him on his course for Broadway: a part in the revival of Les Miserables.

As Davis remembers it, "I was sitting at the office one day and they called to say they had a part for me and they put me on the phone with the music director, who told me I would need to hit a high A-which I hadn't done before, but I went home and tried to 'squeak it out' and I did it a couple of times. Thankfully, since I would be singing that note over the phone, no one saw the way I had to contort my face to hit the note."

And the rest, as they say, is theatrical history: "It was thrilling; I just turned 22 and I had a lot of things to learn, but luckily I joined a company that was fantastic and completely welcoming. I could not have come into a better situation. I went into it with open ears and an open mind and all those people helped me tremendously. It was a godsend and I've always felt like there's been some sort of guardian angel looking out for me-and I feel very fortunate."

The same might be said about Davis' experience playing Marcello in Luhrmann's genre-bending La Boheme on Broadway, which brought him and the other members of the principals' ensemble a special Tony Award in 2003.

"I was the only musical theater person among the principals, the others were from opera," he says. "And they completely welcomed me into that world. As a musical theater person, they were curious about what I could bring to the table and it was a fantastic experience.

'At helm of the production, you had the amazing creators Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin-two of the most dynamic, giving, selfless, completely-without-ego people that I've ever worked with-I just can't say enough about that experience."

So, for Ben Davis-who has great backstage, offstage and onstage stories at his command-his upcoming trip to Tennessee will likely provide more fodder, more experiences that will figure prominently in a whole slew of new tales filled with theatrical intrigue and merriment, along with more biscuits, pancakes and Southern hospitality than he ever thought possible.

Studio Tenn's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music takes to the stage of the historic Franklin Theatre in Williamson County, running May 31-June 17, completing the company's 2011-12 season. For tickets, go to www.FranklinTheatre.com.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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