GYPSY OF THE MONTH: T. Oliver Reid, Une Cagelle
"It hasn't gotten easier yet. We keep thinking: Okay, one of these days we're going to come in and that number's going to be like, 'Oh, of course, I can do this in my sleep.' But no not happening!"
T. Oliver Reid is talking about the showstopping cancan, complete with cartwheels and jump splits (over the orchestra pit), that he and his fellow Cagelles perform in La Cage Aux Folles while wearing dresses, petticoats, wigs and high heels.
They are duly rewarded at the curtain call, when they receive an ovationusually standingthat's more frenzied than those typically given to the ensemble. "It's like we're rock stars!" Reid says.
Reid, who plays Chantal, the operatic Cagelle, and understudies Jacob (Albin's "maid"), isn't new to crowd-pleasershis previous Broadway shows include Kiss Me, Kate and Thoroughly Modern Millie (as well as a notable flop, Never Gonna Dance). But La Cage was different starting at the auditions, which extended over a month. While dancers are usually selected after just one or two callbacks, the La Cage auditions went five rounds. The first "was pretty normal," Reid recalls. "We did a version of cancan, just as guys in dance sneakers." The next time they had to dance in black briefs and tank tops"so they could see our bodies"and subsequent auditions required tights, and then makeup, until a chorus line had been assembled that could not only handle the extravagant choreography but look fab-u-lous doing it.
This wasn't Reid's first performance in drag. In a 2000 episode of Sex and the City, he played a trannie prostitute who noisily trolls the street where Samantha (Kim Cattrall) lives. To try out for that role, Reid took the subway to Silvercup Studios in Queens fully made up, but with a baseball cap and sunglasses on to discourage curious onlookers. His scenes were filmed on location in one night, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
The Sex episode was a rare break from stage work for Reid, who's called T. by most in the biz (but is still Tim to family). Last summer he broke out of the ensemble with his first Equity lead: as the Emcee in Cabaret at the Sharon Playhouse in Connecticut. He'd sought the part to "show people that I do more than dance," but it also allowed him to reinvent a role that's almost always played by a white actor. "It's not so far-fetched if you think about it: someone in the late '20s/early '30s leaving Missouri or South Carolina and going to Europe to find their voice and life, and ending up at a cabaret in Berlin," Reid reflects. "Many African Americans left the States then to find their voicesartists, writers, singers..." A black Emcee, he says, also added a dimension to the Nazi-era story: "It's not just about oppression of Jews at that point; it's about oppression of everyone who doesn't fit into the mold."
Cabaret was not the only show "where who I am has made the experience more rewarding," Reid says. He recalls breaking down during Jesus Christ Superstar, which he appeared in at a regional theater in California in 1996: "When you get to the point where Jesus is about to be crucifiedyou go through rehearsals and tech, and when it finally happens on the stage and you've been doing the entire show, it hits you like a ton of bricks. It's that emotional releasegrowing up in the South, growing up in the church, going to church every Sunday..."
Another emotionally resonant job was the 2001 Broadway revival of Follies, where Reid was in the ensemble. "Follies was amazing," he says, "because of the older cast and seeing what the show is about: the end of careers, the end of who these people are. Seeing these people dance and sing and realizing the major talents they were and are, and the same thing's going to happen to you."
At 34, Reid has already had his brushes with dancer mortality. He had to leave Thoroughly Modern Millie to have surgery to remove part of his anklewhich put him out of commission (and on crutches) for about five months. Earlier, he'd injured his back when he was dropped during a performance of Chicago. As one of the Cagelleswho range in age from newbies to veteran gypsies like himselfReid gets to witness daily the life cycle of a Broadway dancer. "When you're in your early 20s you'll do whatever, and you can do whatever. You'll hurt yourself and won't think twice about it. You don't have to warm up, you don't have to stretch," he says. "You get to your mid 20s and 'Oh, got a little something going on in my lower back' or 'There's something happening here...' You see people start to stretch and try and maintain. By the age of the older members of the Cagelles, we're all like, 'I have to fix that before it gets worse... Before the back gets worse, I have to go the chiropractor.' I come in and warm up everything so I don't get hurt. You have to go to the gym so the muscles are strong. Everything's about maintaining so you can do this as long as you want."
Reid's not complaining, though. He has, after all, made a career out of something he considered just a hobby right into adulthood. Reid had been planning to go to college to study architecture when some friends told him about auditioning for a scholarship to the North Carolina School of the Arts (he grew up near Charlotte). "My entire family sings, so I'd been singing pretty much since birth," he says. He'd also been performing in community theater since age 9, in such roles as Gabriel in Shenandoah, the Artful Dodger and Conrad Birdie. Because musical theater had been part of his life for so long, Reid didn't realize for some time that it was his calling. "I had been singing and dancing since I was a child, and then I sort of fell into studying music at college," he says. "It took me getting out of school, and the second job that I did was Guys and Dolls, when I realized: Yeah, I love this. I'd forgotten how I loved it because I was just doing it and doing it."
Reid majored in voice, and as La Cage's soprano soloist, he gets to put his opera training to use. As a student he was a big fan of Kathleen Battle, and now, he says, "I try and channel her every night when I'm on for Chantal."
La Cage has also put him back in touch with another object of his esteem: choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who had choreographed Never Gonna Dance. "Jerry Mitchell loves Broadway. He loves it with every ounce of his being," Reid raves. "He said to us during the workshop of Never Gonna Dance: 'I just want Broadway to be the best that it can be.' And he has never strayed from that. Everything I see that he does and the choices that he makes as a choreographer and a director and for his dancers has always been on the money.
"You know he's going to make you look good, and he's going to make the entire process enjoyable, and you're going to love doing the show. And you'll do anything he asks, because nothing's gratuitous for him and it's all about: 'This can be done on Broadway.' If he says I can do it, I can do it."
La Cage star Gary Beach also gets Reid's "unparalleled respect," he says, because of "the way that he works and the understanding that he has of his character." And because of something else Beach does, which Kiss Me, Kate star Brian Stokes Mitchell did too. "They'll come up to your dressing room 'cause they just want to see how you're doing. In the middle of their preparation they want to check and make sure everyone else is doing well," Reid relates admiringly. "You hope that at some point you'll be the same kind of artist that they are."
Photos, from top: Reid as Chantal in La Cage [photo by Carol Rosegg] and as Cabaret's Emcee [photo by Pamela Chassin].