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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Devin Richards of 'Finian's Rainbow'

Before he was cast in Finian’s Rainbow, Devin Richards didn’t know anything about the show, which was groundbreaking for its pro-equality message and racially integrated chorus in 1947 but has been seldom revived since then. Richards knows groundbreaking, though. In 2002, at a regional theater in upstate New York, he costarred in a multiracial production of The Sound of Music as Captain Von Trapp, the would-be Nazi officer based on a real-life Austrian. He believes he’s the only black ever to play the part.

Two years ago, at Massachusetts’ North Shore Music Theatre, Richards had another role well-suited to his rich bass baritone but usually given to white men: Javert in Les Misérables. Norm Lewis had portrayed Javert in the 2006 Broadway revival, but Richards is very proud to say, “I beat Brian Stokes Mitchell. I got to do it before he did it at the Hollywood Bowl.”

In perhaps the whitest of the white roles, Richards was “Black Frasier” in a spoofy show-within-a-show on the NBC sitcom 30 Rock in 2006. Richards’ 11 Broadway musicals include several nontraditionally cast shows, including Carousel and 110 in the Shade (both starring his good friend Audra McDonald). In his last Broadway appearance before Finian’s, he was an 18th-century French revolutionary in A Tale of Two Cities.

This season, four new Broadway productions—Finian’s Rainbow, Memphis, Ragtime and Fela!—feature ensembles full of black characters, not just tokens. But Richards rejects the idea that this is theater for the age of Obama. Availability of minority chorus roles “goes in cycles,” he says. “I don’t think it has to do with the current political events.” To him, what matters is performing in a cast with many black performers: “A lot of us from this show are usually what we call ‘the one.’ I was ‘the black guy’ in Tale; I’m working with the black guy who was in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the black guy who was in Curtains. We never get to work together, so the idea that we all get to see each other every day and work together, and I’m not doing a ‘black show’ to work with them, is the most meaningful part of this.”

Richards has received the Gypsy Robe, which is awarded on opening night to the ensemble member with the most Broadway credits, three times: Jesus Christ Superstar, 110 in the Shade and A Tale of Two Cities. But it’s two other shows that remain most special to him. One was 1997-98’s The Life, the Cy Coleman-scored musical about denizens of 1970s-era Times Square, where he was standby for the roles of pimps Memphis (Chuck Cooper) and Fleetwood (Kevin Ramsay). “It was wonderful because I went to school for acting, not for dancing, and there’s just a lot of acting in that,” says Richards. “Pimps and whores—they were still on 10th Avenue then—used to come watch it, and they were like, ‘Wow, you guys really, really got it.’” His other favorite was his Broadway follow-up to The Life: Smokey Joe’s Cafe, which he did in London and on the U.S. tour prior to New York. “I had a blast with that,” he remarks. “The audiences were fun, the music was fun. It was just a joyous show. I saw it five times before I ever did it.” Smokey Joe’s Cafe has “been my bread-and-butter show when not working on Broadway,” Richards points out. “Not easy [for regional theaters] to find a guy with a nonoperatic low C.”

Later in the Broadway run of Smokey Joe’s, Richards got to work with pop stars who were brought in as guest artists, among them Gladys Knight, Rick Springfield, Lou Rawls, Gloria Gaynor, Joan Jett, Lesley Gore and Tony Orlando. “I was always compared to Lou Rawls because I had a deep voice,” says Richards. “To meet him and actually hear him was amazing: the way that he could phrase something, and the amplitude of his voice, because his voice could bounce all the way to the back with no microphone. And then he was such a good guy—like, ‘Call home, call your mom, so I can talk to her.’”

The headliner of Richards’ second Broadway show wasn’t too shabby either: Julie Andrews, in Victor/Victoria, the show in which he had his first solo on the Great White Way, “Le Jazz Hot.” Richards remembers: “We were the show to be in for dancers then because it moved and [choreographer] Rob Marshall was popular then on Broadway.” As for Dame Julie, Richards states: “She’s who I hold any other star accountable to, because of the way that she acts. First of all, she introduces herself to you like you don’t know who she is—and she means it. If we sniffed, she had cold medicine or whatever. She made sure we were treated well, and she was there giving her 100 percent every single day. She wasn’t being special about anything, she treated everyone with respect. Incredible, incredible.”

Victor/Victoria opened to mixed reviews in 1995 and notoriously received only one Tony nomination, but it ran for almost two years. Richards didn’t experience a flop until 2000-01, when he was in Seussical, the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical that was battered by critics and couldn’t even be saved by Rosie O’Donnell’s frequent promotion on her talk show and eventually joining the cast. It lasted just six months. Richards was so devastated by the failure, he dropped out of show business. “When you’re rehearsing a Broadway show, you put your heart into it. You’re very connected to it, like it’s your family,” he says. “The music of that show was so incredible, so you could hear what the potential was. And then for it to not work for one reason or the other was so disheartening, and I couldn’t understand why that was going on. It just made me, like, not want to be there.”

By “be there,” he doesn’t mean in the Seussical company itself but in theater, period. “The business is cutthroat,” Richards says. “I guess I just hadn’t experienced it. It hurt, and I didn’t want to be a part of that. It was too unsafe for your heart.”

Seussical had arrived in New York amid great expectations, making the nasty reception even worse. “It was supposed to be the next Lion King. I left Jesus Christ Superstar to go to the show ’cause everyone convinced me to do it.” He does note that “Rosie made it so much better because she raised the morale of the show. Everyone was really down—not mean, just sad. She treated us so well.”

After Seussical closed, Richards took an IT job at a law firm and enrolled in computer classes, getting certified as a Microsoft systems engineer. He stayed in his new field for two years and was content, never bothering to audition. “Mentally it was very stimulating, but when the computer crash happened, they were only outsourcing and I couldn’t get a full-time job.” In need of health insurance, he approached musical director Rob Fisher, who lived in the same building, about a job—and was cast in the 2003 Broadway revival of Wonderful Town (a production that, like Finian’s Rainbow, had originated at City Center Encores!).

By last season, when Tale of Two Cities received mostly negative reviews and closed in less than two months, Richards had matured and steeled himself to withstand the disappointment. “Now I’m fine,” he states. “You invest as much as you can, and it either works or it doesn’t, and you just have to experience what you can and move on.” And he says that having turned down “a wonderful job”—Caiaphas in the gospel version of Jesus Christ Superstar at Atlanta’s ALLIANCE THEATRE—the day before he was informed of Two Cities’ closing, and having passed on Joe in Show Boat and the dentist in a black prodution of Little Shop of Horrors at North Shore to be in Tale of Two Cities in the first place.

The time away from the stage gave him a new perspective in another way. “Coming back is where I grew up and realized I love performing.” And that applies to “different mediums,” he says. He’s branched out into voiceover, concert and cabaret work, and obviously wouldn’t be averse to more screen roles. Richards sang backup for Lesley Gore (who knew him from Smokey Joe’s Cafe) at Feinstein’s at the Regency last May and had his own solo engagement at the Metropolitan Room in June 2007. He’s also performed at the Birdland and Iridium jazz clubs in midtown and been featured in Broadway by the Year concerts at the Town Hall, doing Sammy Davis Jr. material (from Golden Boy, 1964, and Mr. Wonderful, 1956).

When he sang Mr. Wonderfuls “Too Close for Comfort” at the Town Hall, he was discovered by record producer Ralph Lampkin Jr., who got him booked in the Metropolitan Room. They ended up creating a CD of the live show, which was called My Own Voice, after a song Richards cowrote for the cabaret. “[It] talks about the fact that basically on Broadway you have to sing in the style that is appropriate to the show and/or mandated by the creative team, and perform in a way and style they want in order to carry out their vision. In most shows performing in the chorus, your talent is not really represented,” he says. With My Own Voice, “I get to sing the way I naturally sing and not according to someone else’s rules.” His song list entailed jazz and soul music as well as showtunes, including “Too Darn Hot” (sung mostly in French) and “Old Man River.” The album, which has liner notes by Audra McDonald, is available on cdbaby.com, iTunes, amazon.com and lampkinmusic.com and via a link on Devin’s own website.

He hopes to next record a studio CD, with a full band, that concentrates on jazz and soul. “Grown-folks music, I call it,” Richards says, adding that it’s “where I feel most at home, having been compared all my life to Al Jarreau, Lou Rawls, Joe Williams and Billy Eckstine—all idols.”

Richards has done voiceovers and jingles for such products as Mountain Dew, Chase Bank and Celebrex, and currently he can be heard in a Bank of America radio commercial and as the voice of gangster Dwayne Forge on the Grand Theft Auto IV videogame. In French, he’s the offscreen announcer for satellite channel Africa 24.

Richards is fluent in French and German, from his pre-Broadway years living in Europe. After he and his mom moved to Greensboro, N.C. (from Queens, N.Y.), when he was 8, he grew up around Germans. His “second mom”—the North Carolina next-door neighbor who helped his single mother raise him—was from Heidelberg, and he spent time with her relatives who didn’t speak English. “My mother could see by my being around the German people: ‘There’s something about you. You’re very European...you’re going to end up over there.’” A job in the German Starlight Express sent him overseas in his early 20s, and he later moved to Paris to fulfill a childhood dream. “I took French in school, and I always had a feeling I wanted to be there,” he says. Instead of performing, in Paris he attended L’Alliance Française to learn the language.

While living in Paris in the early ’90s, Richards visited New York and auditioned for the Broadway revivals of Grease and Carousel. He kept returning to Paris between callbacks for Carousel, confident that a slot in the Lincoln Center Theater production was his. “I was kind of cocky and didn’t know any better...I guess because I hadn’t been living here day to day,” he says. He did get cast and left Europe for good. “My plan originally was to move to Europe and stay there forever,” he explains. “One of my best friends, who I went over there with, his plan was to get out of Europe as soon as possible. He’s still there; I’m here. We switched each other’s careers.”

Richards had been doing shows since junior high, and loved it from the start. He has a family history of performing: His uncle, Jimmy Person, has been a popular entertainer in North Carolina but chose raising a family over pursuing a bigger career (watch Devin and his uncle perform together here), and his mother and aunt have sung in local clubs too. Once a basketball and football player as well as Honor Society and chess club member and All-State saxophonist, Devin attended a magnet high school where being in a dance troupe, repertory theater company and choir was coursework. He went straight from his high school graduation ceremony to rehearsals for UNC-Greensboro’s summer stock productions of My Fair Lady and Babes in Arms.

He was a theater major at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., for a year before transferring to North Carolina School of the Arts for “a more rigorous conservatory-type program”—though it was his Catawba classmate Fred Inkley who years later played opposite him, as Jean Valjean to his Javert, in the North Shore Les Miz and performed alongside him on Broadway in the Tale of Two Cities ensemble (in college, they’d been Hud and Berger in Hair). Richards left NCSA before graduating and moved to Florida to work at Busch Gardens. His theme park experience had begun in college, at North Carolina’s Carowinds, and to this day he says they’re “one of the best training grounds for performers. Teaches you endurance, work ethic, how to think on your feet on stage and responsibility, as well as flexibility in terms of switching dance steps and vocal parts, partners, etc., at a moment’s notice—a lot of tools you need for performing and surviving on Broadway.” In Florida, he also did industrials and theater, both musical and non (he had the title role in Dracula at Tampa Players).

In addition to his frequent Broadway appearances over the past decade and a half, Richards costarred as the Pirate King in the Vineyard Theatre’s 2005 Miracle Brothers off-Broadway and has been in several Encores! shows—Golden Boy, The Pajama Game (which he also did on Broadway), The New Moon, The Apple Tree—and the televised-on-PBS concert stagings of Camelot, Passion and South Pacific. The latter, presented at Carnegie Hall in 2005, starred Brian Stokes Mitchell as Emile de Becque. Richards names Stokes and Chuck Cooper, with whom he’s now performing “The Begat” in Finian’s Rainbow, as “two performers I look up to. They are mesmerizing on stage and super-nice off stage—my favorite combination.” They also are members of the deep-voice club with Richards. “Even though they’re not basses, they are the lowest voices I’ve gotten to hear that are leading lower voices,” Devin says. “And then to be topped with their gentility. They’re nothing like what their command on stage is; they’re just very softhearted people. That’s what I want to be like when I grow up!”

Of his own distinctive sound, Richards continues: “If you notice, there aren’t basses on Broadway anymore, because there aren’t any jobs for us. When I first got here, there were like 10, 11 of us and we all used to audition together. Now I think there are like 3 or 4 of us. In ‘The Begat,’ I made my role into the bass. Whatever show I do, I try to add low notes. To me it sounds better, but also it gives me a place.”

Of course, the fact that he could get cast as Captain Von Trapp suggests he has firmly established a place for himself. Richards recalls of that audition: “I read the breakdown—‘all roles are being considered for nontraditional’—and was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna see if they really mean it. I know good and well they don’t.’” But the director, Kevin Moriarty (who’d been assistant director of Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway), was true to his word. “I had a white wife and I had kids that covered the whole spectrum. The kids came from diverse families like their family on stage, so it wasn’t bizarre to them,” Richards says of the production at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre. Most importantly, he adds, “the audience completely accepted it. It proved to me what I always thought: Audiences believe what you tell them to believe.”

He doesn’t value the traditionally white parts over black roles. What he prizes is “getting to play a good role, period. Javert is a great role...Fleetwood in The Life, which is a black role, was equally as wonderful because it was challenging. It’s one of those roles where you’re not going to get it in two weeks. There’s so much to do acting-wise, and then to get the voice with it, there’s so much to put together in order to accomplish it. Getting to do that at all is great.”

Whether lead or ensemble, Richards treasures his time on stage. “There’s always backstage politics, there’s always decisions that you don’t like, there’s always going to be all of that. But for me, when the curtain goes up, between 8 o’clock and 10:30–11 o’clock, it’s like a period when nobody can touch you. And the audience always tells the truth about what you do. That’s where you realize whether you’re doing your job or not, no matter what anyone else has to say. And that’s something that I know.”

What else does the veteran have to teach younger performers? “The biggest thing is not to take it for granted,” he says. “Really try to keep staying your best at what you do, keep your love for it, and—as they told me when I went into Smokey Joe’s Cafe—don’t let anyone steal your joy. People are always going to tell you you’re bad, other people’ll you you’re good. You’ve got to know within yourself what you do, and do it [to] the best of your ability.”

Photos of Devin, from top: outside the St. James Theatre, with accolades for Finian’s Rainbow on display; second from right, with (from left) Victor Trent Cook, Alton Fitzgerald White and Harrison White in the West End Smokey Joe’s Cafe; with Julie Andrews and her husband, Victor/Victoria director Blake Edwards, during the show’s Broadway run; far right, performing “The Begat” in Finian’s Rainbow with (from left) James Stovall, Chuck Cooper and Bernard Dotson; backstage at The Life, ready to go on in the role of Fleetwood; singing in concert; as a Starlight Express character in Germany; as Javert in North Shore Music Theatre’s Les Misérables; as factory worker Joe in the 2006 Roundabout revival of The Pajama Game; goofing off in a very un-Captain Von Trapp-like fashion with the youngsters who played his children in The Sound of Music at the Hangar Theatre, 2002. [Smokey Joe’s Cafe photo by Donald Cooper; Finian’s Rainbow photo by Joan Marcus; Les Miz photo by Paul Lyden]

On Dec. 22, catch Devin as guest vocalist with the Danny Lerman Little Big Band at Iridium Jazz Club. Click here for more.

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