GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Chris DeAngelis, 'Beauty and the Beast'

By: Jul. 01, 2007
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Sometimes, putting salt on a wound can actually feel good. For Christopher DeAngelis, the wound was his fifteen or so years as a professional performer without a Broadway credit, including three years trying to get into one particular show. The salt was Salt with a capital S, as in the dancing salt shaker of Beauty and the Beast—the role that finally became his Broadway debut, in the show he'd been striving for over and over.

DeAngelis debuted with Beauty and the Beast in May 2004 and stayed in the show for two years. He departed last summer after he was cast in the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels tour. But this May, he returned to the Beauty ensemble, in his old role, to finish out the Disney megahit's Broadway run.

July 29 will be the final performance for Beauty and the Beast, which opened in April 1994 and currently ranks sixth all-time in length of run on the Great White Way. "I heard the show was closing," says DeAngelis, "and I thought: I need to be a part of this. This was my first Broadway show. I had seen it for years. I had auditioned three years to get into it. I have to be there for the closing performance. I just called and said, 'I want to come back.'"

Conveniently, the Salt role was being vacated by Bret Shuford, who'd been cast in Disney's stage version of The Little Mermaid (which succeeds Beauty at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in November). And though DeAngelis had enjoyed being in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he had some impetus to leave after contracts were changed—and his salary cut 40 percent—due to the tour's weak box office.

The DRS tour had started promisingly. Its Tony-winning Broadway lead, Norbert Leo Butz, would be playing Freddy for the first few months, and the show got a brand-new opening number. "It was a great experience to be a part of, because we got to create something from scratch and be the first people to do it," says DeAngelis. "A chance to work with Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell, two of the most well-received Broadway directors and choreographers that we have right now. To watch it all happen and come together, and to work with them and listen to them, and see how they worked…"

In Scoundrels, DeAngelis was covering the featured role of Andre (originated on Broadway by Gregory Jbara). In Beauty and the Beast, he covers another comically French-accented character, Lumiere. His regular roles in addition to Salt include egg seller in the opening number, tavern patron in "Gaston," one of the wolves guarding the Beast's castle, and wedding-attending villager in the finale. Salt appears in both the first and second acts, as do the wolves, so DeAngelis changes costumes at least half a dozen times during a performance—and for several of those changes he has to go up and down the four flights of stairs to his dressing room.

DeAngelis' attachment to Beauty and the Beast has its roots in his childhood. He was born in Anaheim, Calif., and lived a block away from Disneyland. "I'm a Disney brat," he says. "Having all of my parents' relatives be from the Midwest, every weekend we had people coming out to visit, so we were always at the park. I was brought up on it." Years later, in college, when he started planning on a performance career, "one of my goals back then, I wanted to be one of the kids who danced in front of the castle," he says. "I never got to do it. This [Beauty] is my way to dance in front of the castle."

He did end up in a theme park's employ—Six Flags Great America, outside Chicago. He was then a high schooler living in Naperville, Ill., and he sang and danced in Six Flags' "Stars and Stripes Revue" alongside another young man from Naperville named Stephen Buntrock, who now plays Gaston in Beauty and the Beast.

DeAngelis was a sophomore when his family had moved to Naperville, his fourth home as his father's work necessitated several relocations. They'd moved from southern California to the Cleveland area when DeAngelis was in third grade, then onto Stone Mountain, Ga., a couple of years later. During a summer in Ohio, DeAngelis went over to the local public library to check out the movies screened for kids while school was out. "They were showing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and I was like: Wow, that's kind of fun. I thought that movie was like the most incredible thing ever.

"But I still had no way to be a part of that," he adds. He took up clarinet and baritone for the school band when he got to junior high, and later joined the chorus. By high school, he was performing in all the school musicals (culminating with a senior-year lead as Danny Zuko in Grease), though he didn't actually take a dance class until college.

He attended Illinois State for two years, then transferred to Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. At ISU, he had to double-major in theater and music and minor in dance to get all the training he desired, but at Millikin he could major in music theater. He graduated in 1989, but did not hightail it to New York as many aspirants do.

"That had always been my dream," DeAngelis says. "Then, one day on a break from school, I saw a dinner-theater show in Chicago and was like: 'Oh. I can do theater here.' It had never occurred to me, for some reason, that theater went on anywhere else but New York. Growing up, I had seen tours that had come to town, but I didn't know that there were actual theaters in town."

Ultimately, he became a regular performer at those "theaters in town," among them the Drury Lane South, the Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace and the Candlelight Theatre, where he had seen that production of La Cage Aux Folles as a student that convinced him to pursue work in Chicagoland. He was in the six-person cast of Puttin' on the Ritz, an Irving Berlin revue produced by the National Jewish Theatre in Skokie that was so popular it transferred to the Drury Lane South (neither theater still exists).

He also did concert work. Shortly after college, he sang backup for Perry Como ("an amazing man") on a Christmas tour. In 1997, he went out on the road again at the holidays—this time with Kenny Rogers. "He had written a little musical called The Toy Shoppe to go along with his Christmas concert; he wanted to do something other than sing carols. So I played Rags the rapping rag doll, in complete Raggedy Andy garb. I can't tell you how weird it was to have to go into stadiums full of people who came to hear Kenny sing his country music and rap for them."

Doing theater in Chicago, DeAngelis discovered that while it was lower-profile than New York, it too could be fraught with heartbreak for performers. DeAngelis experienced it with Candlelight, where he had ensemble roles in Evita, Maury Yeston's Phantom and Brigadoon and played youngest sib Gideon in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Then, in 1998, "I'd worked my way up into a principal role—I was playing Cliff in Cabaret, and I'd just signed my contract to play Riff in West Side Story," he says. "We were a month into our [Cabaret] run and the director came in and told us the bank had foreclosed." The theater shut down then and there, not even a performance that night. "We were told to pack up our stuff. They were there with the police to lock everything up.

"I was dumbfounded," DeAngelis continues. "I had had a good six months of work all set to go." That's when he revived the idea of going to New York. He'd decided against in the past because "I had met a couple of people who had gone [to New York] and come back and were horrified by it. A lot of them had worked consistently in the Chicago market, in principal roles, and went with great résumés. And came back after months, or years, and hadn't worked once." These were performers, he says, "who I had had up on pedestals. I thought they were amazing actors, and thought, 'If they're not getting anywhere there, why would I?'"

DeAngelis did have a similar experience once he moved to New York, unable to win a part in a play for two full years. But before he came to New York, he joined the Ragtime tour just as it was moving from L.A. to Vancouver. It then played in Chicago for nine months. In October 1999, a whole decade after finishing college, DeAngelis moved to New York. Almost immediately, he picked up a dancing gig in a swing revue at the Supper Club in midtown, performing twice a night on weekends. But theatrical roles proved hard to come by, and to make ends meet he worked as a personal trainer in the Peninsula hotel, often waking up at 4:45 in the morning so he could open the hotel gym for the day.

His breakthrough came in the summer of 2001, which he spent at Maine State Music Theatre, performing in Guys and Dolls, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Oklahoma, Footloose and Little Shop of Horrors. Little Shop wasn't in his original contract, and when the company asked him to take over for an actor who'd dropped out, DeAngelis thought he'd be playing Seymour—a role he'd done previously at Rocky Mountain Rep in Grand Lake, Colo., and Pheasant Run theater in St. Charles, Ill. Turned out, they'd cast him as the mutant plant—not its voice, just its movement. He returned to Maine State the following season for The King and I, Chicago, Ragtime and She Loves Me. The latter then moved on to Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre, where he'd been in My Fair Lady the previous year. In 2003, he appeared at Walnut Street in Evita and La Vie en Bleu, a new musical about Picasso adapted from a four-hour French opera.

All along, he'd been trying to get into a Broadway show. No slot ever opened up in the Broadway company of Ragtime for him, and he also was up repeatedly for a spot in the Annie Get Your Gun chorus. "I kept getting really, really close but never could actually book the job," he says. As for Beauty and the Beast, "I probably was in at least eight to ten times over three years," he says. "There were several times I was called in, most of the time I had just gone to the open call." By early 2004, casting director Mark Brandon had told him: "The next time we lose Salt, you're in." But DeAngelis admits he was thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. We've been playing this game for three years now."

Not long after, though, Brandon called to tell him "the salt had run out" and they just needed him to come in and do Lumiere's parts for the audition. He went in on a Tuesday, then endured a torturous week. He had not heard back from them by Friday, which was his birthday and was spoiled by the disappointment. "I thought, 'Oh, my God. Finally I got there and I blew it.' I went through the weekend just miserable, down and depressed, like: This is what my life is going to be like now; you were there and it didn't happen."

The following Tuesday—a week after he'd had what he thought was in a shoo-in audition for Beauty—he tried out for two other shows under duress. "They were probably the worst auditions I've ever given in my life," he says. His agent called him while he was walking home from the second audition. "He's like, 'So, Beauty and the Beast—you want to do it?' He was so passive about it, and I was: 'Of course I want to do it! Are you kidding me?!'"

DeAngelis' last show before his long-awaited Broadway bow was Footloose up at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, where he played Willard (the Christopher Penn role in the movie). Though the role made him "the oldest teenager ever," DeAngelis says, "it was a great moment for me, because I got to do something I'd never done before—be the goofy sidekick with the twang and be the funny guy. I got to step outside my comfort zone, and it was a good springboard to get ready for Lumiere."

DeAngelis' return to Beauty and the Beast this spring came at a sad time for him. His mother, who'd been suffering from cancer for five years, was gravely ill. It was, in fact, one of the reasons he decided to leave the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels tour: to be in NYC, "where I could fly very simply and get out of town very quickly." His first performance back in the Beauty cast was May 8; his mother died on May 12. He had visited her between departing Scoundrels and starting Beauty rehearsals, knowing it would probably be the last time. The night before she died, which was only his fifth performance back in the show, he had gone as Lumiere. "One of her favorite things was getting to see me as Lumiere, and I had thought I'd never get to do that again," he says.

His family called him before his Saturday matinee to tell him she'd passed away. "My dad was like, 'Go do your two shows. You know that's what she wants.'" DeAngelis adds, "One of the last things my mother said to me before she passed was 'I'll be watching.'"

He remembers another conversation he'd had with his mother—in which she explained why she and his father hadn't wholeheartedly encouraged his theatrical ambitions when he was younger. "My mom said, 'Of course we told you no. It had to be what you wanted to do, not because we were saying yes. If you wanted to do it, you really had to go do it. And obviously you did.'"

Since moving to New York, DeAngelis has added TV series credits to his résumé, though much has been extra or stand-in. But he did dance in ball scenes on All My Children and has had assorted bit parts on One Life to Live, including "Gay Man #1" who tried to pick up Bo Buchanan (Robert S. Woods). "He always calls me Bruce when I'm there," DeAngelis says of longtime OLTL star Woods, "because he thinks I resemble Bruce Willis."

DeAngelis headlined his own faux TV chat show backstage at Beauty and the Beast. It began when he joined the cast in '04 and was reunited with his old friend Ann Arvia, with whom he'd worked earlier on a few shows in Chicago (including Gypsy at Drury Lane Oakbrook, where she was Mama Rose and he was one of the Farm Boys) as well as at Maine State. Together again in Beauty, "every intermission we would start chatting on the stairs by the girls' dressing room," says DeAngelis, "and slowly people would stop and listen to us, and it became 'Chi Chat.' We were Chicago's own Kelly and Regis."

No one ever taped the sessions, but "daily during intermission we would all sit on the stairs and answer questions and talk like that," DeAngelis says, "and it turned into a full talk show in Brooke Tansley's dressing room when she became Belle. The ensemble would gather, and we'd have someone from the cast or one of the dressers or one of the crew come up and they would be the guest star, and we would find out information about who they were and how they got to Beauty and what their life was about and all of that. People would tell stories about their families, how they got started, their worst experience on stage. And people would bring in videotapes of shows in their past, and photos. So we all got an amazing chance to get to know one another.

"It was just this small thing that started," he says, "but it went on a good year." It faded after Ashley Brown replaced Tansley, but by then everyone who'd been a "guest star" had received their own "Chris & Ann's Chi Chat" logo mug. These days, DeAngelis is more likely to be rabidly solving Sudoku puzzles during intermission; he does about three or four of them a day, he says. He has a gig lined up after Beauty closes—at least for that first night afterward: On July 30, DeAngelis is playing Michael in a benefit reading of The Boys in the Band, featuring Broadway chorus boys, at the LGBT Community Center in Greenwich Village.

Photos of Chris, from top: with Garrett Miller as Salt and Pepper in Beauty and the Beast; as Lumiere with Stephen "Gaston" Buntrock; backstage at Ragtime with Barbara Walsh, who played Mother; with the Ragtime tour's Coalhouse Walker Jr., Hinton Battle; outside the Lunt-Fontanne during Beauty's homestretch.  

Another Beauty and the Beast alumnus, Brian O'Brien, was June's Gypsy of the Month. He was in The Pirate Queen and is now on the Spamalot tour. Read about Brian here.