GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Roger Preston Smith of 'Hello, Dolly!'
Yet there is a first for Smith in Paper Mill's Dolly! Back in the early '70s, in his first professional performing job after college, Smith danced in an arena show called Disney on Parade with a young married couple named Gene and Becky Columbus. Their son Nigel is now playing one of Smith's fellow waiters at the Harmonia Gardens. It's his first such generation-spanning experience with a family.
Smith notched another career first last December when he costarred as Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on Hilton Head Island, S.C. It was the first nonmusical he'd ever done. The rest of the cast "were all 'actor' actors. Like, two of the people had gone to Juilliard, one had gone to Yale," Smith says. "I would see them in New York [afterward] and they'd say, 'Why weren't you at that audition?' and I'd go, 'For what?' They'd go, 'Such-and-such Shakespeare...'"
It's the bards of Broadway's golden age, not of Avon, that Smith knows best. His recent regional credits include Anything Goes and 42nd Street at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City last year; Dolly! in 2004 at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre (where he'd earlier done Cabaret and La Cage Aux Folles); 42nd Street in Hilton Head in spring 2003; and My Fair Lady, his debut at Paper Mill, in 2002.
There was almost an unfortunate first for Smith during this run of Hello, Dolly!—having to sit out a show due to injury. On June 19, Smith was knocked unconscious when a truck smacked into him while he was bicycling in midtown Manhattan. He suffered a concussion and bruised left arm, and was still feeling dizzy when he reported for the next performance two days later. But he went on that night ("I never felt dizzy on stage, I actually felt better after the show") and has been in all subsequent performances. That's business as usual for Smith: The only times he's missed performances in his lengthy career were "when my brother passed away and when I had salmonella in Mexico City."
Good health and fitness have something to do with his near-perfect attendance, but Smith has also been inspired by Carol Channing, who famously never missed any of her 5,000+ performances as Dolly. "I learned so much from her," he says. "One of the things is why I don't want to miss a show. She never missed a show, and she said, [imitating Channing] 'That means you're dispensable. I can't imagine being dispensable.'"
Smith says he also learned from Channing by "just watching her refine how to find a joke, how to focus a joke, how nobody can be moving on a laugh line, it distracts." He's deploying those comic skills in the parade and courtroom scenes of Paper Mill's Dolly! (which runs through July 23 in Millburn, N.J.). As the judge in the "It Only Takes a Moment" scene, Smith gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening for his joked-about nose and for bursting into tears at Cornelius' declaration of love.
Smith played maitre d' Rudolph during part of his run in Hello, Dolly! with Channing and in the Westchester show. But his character is only one of the changes for Smith in this production. Between Tovah Feldshuh's more restrained, more Irish interpretation of Dolly and Mia Michaels' choreography with its Fosse-esque tableaux, he feels like a first-timer. "Mainly I've done the Gower Champion version. But this has much more of a modern feel...very stylized. It feels like a new show because they've reinvented it."
Describing the work by Michaels, who has choreographed mostly for concerts and television commercials, Smith says: "She has a way of layering choreography, and layering intent on top of it. Her work isn't just about steps. She was always talking about the breath. When Dolly comes in the room, we raise ourselves up and let out an audible breath: Ahhh. It's just: [breath] 'She's here!' Mia put the steps down, and then she was always talking about colors that she wanted to add. She asks you to go further and further—take that movement to the extreme. Never be safe. But at the same time don't turn it into a cartoon."