GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Dennis Stowe of 'Shrek The Musical'

Dennis Stowe is like the Anthony Quinn of gypsies. He’s of mixed heritage and you couldn’t pinpoint his ethnicity from his name or appearance, so he plays all types. He was a Jewish immigrant in a college production of Tintypes; a Puerto Rican in a West Side Story tour; a Brooklynite from the Caribbean, one of his favorite regional roles, in Avenue X; and a Spaniard in his Broadway debut, Man of La Mancha.

The biracial Stowe says, “I identify with the African-American experience because I grew up in my mother’s house” after his parents split up when he was young. But he also was close to the Italian-American side of his father’s family, who lived nearby. “I always say if I had to do my memoirs, it would be called ‘Chitlins During the Week, Lasagna on the Weekends,’” he quips. The surname Stowe comes from his father’s father—“a hick from Alabama,” according to Dennis, who was baptized Catholic and attended Catholic school but worshipped with his mother at a Baptist church.

Stowe’s background means that on stage he’s equally at home on Catfish Row (Porgy and Bess) as on the French Riviera (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), in the state of Denmark (Hamlet) as in the state of New Jersey (The Wedding Singer). Or off in some fairy-tale land where ogres, talking donkeys and vertically challenged noblemen roam.

In Shrek, Stowe expands his range even further, playing assorted non-human storybook characters and other denizens of the kingdom of Duloc. Among his roles: Papa Bear, Thelonius the monk, a skeleton in “Donkey Pot Pie” and a tap-dancing rat (right up front, on Sutton “Princess Fiona” Foster’s left). “We worked hard, through improv work and acting exercises, to bring a human quality to these fairy-tale creatures,” Stowe says, “and give them a point of view and backstory, and to sort of transcend the costume.” He has been with Shrek since its workshop in 2007 and used to have an additional role: a carnival barker on stilts who interacts with Young Shrek. That character was cut as the show was revised, though the stilts are still lying around backstage at the Broadway Theatre.

Stowe was selected for the Shrek workshop around the same time he was cast in Jerry Springer: The Opera for its two concert performances at Carnegie Hall in January ’08. (He played a thuggish audience member in baseball cap and baggy pants.) Both Springer and Shrek were directed by Jason Moore, and both, Stowe reveals, sought performers “who were ‘odd’ types.” He says of the Shrek ensemble: “There’s no two of the same people. We are often told that we were chosen because we are all unique and ‘twisted’ in some way.”

“Twisted” may be a bit harsh, but Stowe knows he’s not your typical chorus boy. He’s bald, looks kinda like a tough guy and has a very deep singing voice. And for 20 years he’s made that work for him, not against him. “A lot of people told me that if you shave your head and you can’t sing a high G, then you’d never work because you won’t fit into a chorus,” he says, adding in response to the doubters: “This is my sixth Broadway show, and I have never had hair.”

He’s rarely had to wear a wig on stage, either. For Man of La Mancha, in fact, he was instructed to keep his head shaved, as the creative team had decided they wanted one bald Muleteer. Stowe was 32 when he was cast in the La Mancha revival starring Brian Stokes Mitchell. “By the time I reached Broadway, I could really appreciate it,” he says. “I wasn’t some kid just out of school. I felt I had done what actors do: I lived on people’s couches, I worked regionally a lot, and in between I would wait tables.”

He actually performed on a Broadway stage prior to Man of La Mancha: for one night only in 2001’s star-studded Actors Fund benefit performance of Dreamgirls. He did another all-star Actors Fund one-off, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, in October 2006. At the time he was serving a brief stint in The Wedding Singer and prepping for the Roundabout revival of The Apple Tree, which opened that December. Stowe received the Gypsy Robe for The Apple Tree, having also added Wonderful Town and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to his Broadway credits in the four years since his 2002 debut with La Mancha.

Stowe’s first major New York production was off-Broadway’s Naked Boys Singing!, which opened in the summer of 1999 and still plays weekends at New World Stages. He assisted choreographer Jeffry Denman, his friend from an early-’90s European tour of My One and Only, and was repeatedly offered a role in the show. “I said absolutely not,” Stowe states. “I hadn’t really worked in New York, and I didn’t want my first thing to be in the nude. I just didn’t think I could do something like that.

“They asked several times,” he continues, “because I knew all the choreography. And then they asked one time when I needed a job.” So he became a Naked swing. And today he credits it with helping him land a role in the family-friendly Shrek. “Once you are completely naked on stage, you can do anything. It’s frightening, but it frees you up. For Shrek, they needed people who were fearless and were willing to take risks and go there. What bigger risk do you take than when you have all your wares out?”

More recently, Stowe has teamed with Denman for Jazz Turns, a cabaret Denman created and headlined that reinterprets showtunes to a jazz beat (click here to watch part of their tap duet). It was done at Birdland in 2007 and 2008 and won Denman a Bistro Award from Back Stage magazine. Stowe has also worked several times with Andy Blankenbuehler, who played Riff to his Bernardo in a national tour of West Side Story right before they were both cast in Man of La Mancha. That was Blankenbuehler’s last Broadway show before he switched from dancing to choreographing, and Stowe has performed his choreography in The Apple Tree and a 2004 production of Andrew Lippa’s A Little Princess in Palo Alto, Calif.

His first encounter with Blankenbuehler was as a wide-eyed audience member. When Stowe was still a Broadway aspirant, he saw Blankenbuehler in Fosse. “I remember thinking these people are amazing, I don’t know if I’m that good,” Stowe recalls. “Now I’ve worked with a lot of them—you get validated along the way.”

From the time he saw his first musical on the Great White Way, A Chorus Line, “I’d be so invigorated when I saw a Broadway show,” says Stowe, who grew up on Long Island. His mother sent him along to his cousin’s dance class when he was about 9 since he seemed to be dancing all over the place anyway. He quit training when he got to high school, but could often be found breakdancing in the hallways after school. The drama teacher caught his moves and encouraged him to get involved in the school musicals. Stowe entered college, however, as an engineering major. “I was excellent in math and science in high school and that’s what everyone—guidance counselors, family—told me I should try,” he recalls.

At Long Island’s Hofstra University, he struggled with the coursework during his freshman year, and after spending the summer working at Surflight Theatre on the Jersey Shore he switched to a mostly performance curriculum. His three minors—in music, drama and psychology—were good for a B.A. in liberal arts, and allowed him to perform in school shows (his roles ranged from the gravedigger in Hamlet to Pippin’s Lead Player) and to sing with several university choral groups, including the Chamber Singers and jazz choir.

He earned his Equity card while still in college, performing in Porgy and Bess at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera the summer before his senior year. After graduating, Stowe worked regularly in regional theater and tours. He spent 1993 and 1994 in Europe on back-to-back tours of Bubbling Brown Sugar and My One and Only (starring Jodi Benson and her husband, Ray Benson). Back in the States, he appeared in Five Guys Named Moe at both Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, performed at Arizona Theatre Company in the first post-Broadway production of Swinging on a Star—choreographed, as the short-lived Broadway version was, by Kathleen Marshall—and portrayed Winston in the a cappella musical Avenue X at Merrimack Repertory Theatre outside Boston. He also was in the workshop of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party that preceded its 2000 off-Broadway run and in the 2000-01 tour of Copacabana that was supposed to lead to a Broadway bow for the Barry Manilow musical.

Though Copacabana fell short of its Broadway goal, it was both a career and ego boost for Stowe, since he had finally been hired by choreographer Wayne Cilento—“someone I had auditioned for several times before.” Dancing in a Cilento show motivated him to bolster his technique. “After Copacabana, all I did was take ballet class for six months. I love being on the stage, and I think I had a natural ability to dance and people recognized my energy, [but] I was like, I have to get my technique together.”

There were a number of almosts before Stowe was cast in his first Broadway show. “Aida I got close to a couple of times. I was down to the wire for Thoroughly Modern Millie. I went in for Rent about 10 times, which is how I know Tim Weil [an arranger/conductor on Shrek],” he recounts. Scattered amid all Stowe’s pre-Broadway stage work were intermittent appearances as a waiter in such Manhattan restaurants as Harry’s Burritos, Sidewalkers and the Emporio Armani café. He also sang for a time at the now-shuttered Motown Café.

In the late 1990s, Stowe did promotional performances (but was not in the regular cast) for Tap Dogs, the hard-stomping show from Australia that played in NYC in 1997 and has been touring the U.S. ever since. A fellow dancer on that gig was Josh Prince, the choreographer of Shrek. Meanwhile, Shrek is Stowe’s fourth project with star Brian D’Arcy James, whom he first met on a reading of the musical Leap of Faith in 2004. James also costarred in The Apple Tree and as Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Stowe returned to Leap of Faith for a workshop last spring (the show, based on a Steve Martin movie and scored by Alan Menken, is expected on Broadway within a year or two). James didn’t do the Faith workshop, but he and Stowe reunited for Shrek’s Seattle tryout last summer. Stowe has also worked with Apple Tree’s leading lady, Kristin Chenoweth, on more than one occasion; in 2007, he appeared with her in the City Center Encores! production of Stairway to Paradise.

A former castmate who’s become Stowe’s best friend and a connection to some jobs is Michael McElroy, whom Stowe met doing the Wild Party workshop a decade ago. McElroy admired his singing and promised him a spot in Broadway Inspirational Voices, the gospel show choir he’d founded, when there was a baritone opening. Stowe joined BIV about a year later and is featured on their albums Great Joy and Grace. With McElroy, he’s also sung on Christmas albums by Barbara Cook (Count Your Blessings) and Vanessa Williams (Silver & Gold), as well as the 2008 CD Music for a Green Planet, musician Hayes Greenfield’s jazz arrangements of children’s songs with an environmental theme. He will be heard next on the Shrek original cast recording, due out March 24.

Stowe’s ventures into other media include a part in the Army induction scene of the movie musical Across the Universe and a West Side Story-spoofing episode of House of Buggin’, John Leguizamo’s mid-’90s sketch comedy series on Fox. But “theater is my passion,” Stowe notes. “I feel the most fulfilled artistically when I’m on stage.”

In 2005, he joined Bebe Neuwirth when she took her Kurt Weill tribute, Here Lies Jenny, to San Francisco. He had to tango with her to get the part. “She was very, very nice to me, and I was very intimidated by her,” Stowe says of the audition. But he felt confident after the tryout tango. “They wanted you to be a strong, masculine presence, and I guess I handled her the way that she wanted to be handled. I remember looking up at her afterward and she looked at me, and I kind of knew I had the job then.” Neuwirth later told him, though, that it was his vocal audition—when he sang his usual “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”—that’d won him the part.

“I’m always somewhat surprised when I get a job, and as long as I feel like I’m surprised, I think that I should still do this,” Stowe says. “There’s no feeling like dancing on a Broadway stage, and sweating on a Broadway stage.”

Sure, but that doesn’t mean something else can’t thrill Stowe—like, say, seeing another son of biracial parents elected president of the United States. Barack Obama’s victory was emotionally profound for Stowe’s mother and her family, but he thinks an Obama presidency signifies progress for everybody, not just people of color. “He transcends race totally, I believe,” says Stowe. “He is a new example of how we should look at things and communicate, and talk about race and things like that—not have it be something that we just sweep under the rug.”

Photos of Dennis, from top: posing proudly amid the Shrek accolades outside the Broadway Theatre; in the Carnegie Hall concert presentation of Jerry Springer: The Opera, with Linda Balgord; in a couple of his Shrek guises; in The Apple Tree, with Mike McGowan; with his parents on opening night of The Apple Tree in 2006; during the 2007 run of Stairway to Paradise, with castmates Kristin Chenoweth and Capathia Jenkins; in Here Lies Jenny with Bebe Neuwirth and Angelo Fraboni. [Shrek production photos by Joan Marcus]

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