Getting 'Ritz-y' with Brooks Ashmanskas

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Brooks Ashmanskas recalls vividly where he was and what he was doing when he learned he'd been nominated for a Tony Award in 2007.  He was in bed.  At the time he was appearing with Victor Garber in a production of Noel Coward's Present Laughter at the Huntington Theater in Boston. The production was in tech and he was sleeping in after a particularly long night when the phone rang.  The caller ID indicated that it was his partner Shawn, so he picked up.  Shawn immediately told him that he should be on-line right then and there.  Why?  Because Ashmanskas had just received a Tony Nomination for his work in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me  "It was one of the greatest moments of my life," says the actor.  "I have the embossed nomination certificate above my computer so I see it every day when I check my e-mail.  Really, it was an enormous honor and one I never thought I'd receive—especially for a role that required me to walk on stilts!"

At the actual Tony Awards ceremony, Ashmanskas was very glad to find his old friend Robert Sean Leonard reading the announcements for his category.  "I breathed a sigh of relief because I knew he'd pronounce my last name correctly!"  For the record, the name is Lithuanian and the actor has never considered changing.  "Oh, the topic came up once with an agency that I was free-lancing with.  They suggested that I change it to something easier to pronounce.  I replied, 'I don't think "Brooks" is that difficult.'  That ended that."

Though still a young man, Ashmanskas has amassed an impressive resume:  In addition to The Ritz and Fame Becomes Me, he's appeared on Broadway with Bernadette Peters in Gypsy, in Little Me with Martin Short, in The Producers as Carmen Ghia, and Bud Frump in the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying among others

The actor grew up in Portland. Oregon. His father is a Federal judge and both of his parents are from the East Coast. They left about a year or two before Ashmanskas was born. "I think they saw pictures in something like National Geographic and decided they wanted to live in a place where they could see trees," he comments. He remained there through high school and left to attend Bennington College in Vermont where he double-majored in theater and musical composition.

One of the first professional jobs that Ashmanskas had was in Neil Simon's London Suite, which was presented Off Broadway "Dan Sullivan was the director.  I had met him once and he had me come in for the tiny part of the bellman of the London Hotel.  Actually, it was like California Suite and it was with an astonishing cast of four or five.  We had Carole Shelley, Paxton Whitehead, Kate Burton and Jeffrey Jones.  I was thrilled just to be around them.  I really didn't have very much to do, but I hung around at the theater and loved it.  Because it was a Neil Simon play many important people came to see it.  Daisy Prince, Hal's daughter, was putting together a show that Jason Robert Brown  had written called Songs For A New World and she had heard me song somewhere late at night at a party or something   She asked me to come in for that and I got it.  That led to other musicals, but it was Daisy Prince who gave me my first shot as a singer."

Ashmanskas was also featured in the Roundabout's revival of Cy Coleman and Neil Simon's Little Me, which starred Martin Short and Faith Prince.  "It played at the old Criterion Center.  You know, the old 'Toys R Us Theater'. The entire cast was really great.  It was a terrific time for me.  I also developed a great friendship with Marty and it has gone on for some time.  His generosity as a person and as an actor makes him special.  He's famous for being a comedian or a sketch comic, but he's the real thing.  He not only asks but expects you to be on your gig and if you're not up to it, he will take the reins and put you where you need to go.  He will foster you to really shine.  A few years later in Fame Becomes Me, he gave me way too much to do!"

In his relatively young career, Ashmanskas has been fortunate enough to work for some top notch directors.  How does he account for it? "Luck," he quickly responds, "Complete luck. I think it's all about doing the best you can and being what you are and knowing what you have to offer and offering it.  Some people go for it and some people won't and that cannot matter.  It was all about who had seen me in what.  I think a lot of it has to do with personal connections, not necessarily networking, but friends.  I've known Joe Mantello for about fifteen years but we never worked together until now.  This role just 'fit' and it's finally the time to do it."  Now that the two men are working together, Ashmankas is extremely happy with the collaboration.  "It was a lovely surprise to discover how calm Joe is, especially in the note sessions.  He's soft-spoken and you sort of have to lean in and ask WHAT?  He's not like that in person.  Yet his calmness gives you a feeling of safety and that's important in a comedy—especially this comedy—because you really have to 'go for it' and if you feel any sort of limitation you're gonna die.  I really appreciate that.  Joe is just smart   He has a great visual sense and really loves the theater.  In plain English, he 'gets it'! Maybe the word that comes to mind with Joe is 'parental'."                                                                                                                 

Ashmanskas has kind words for is Dan Sullivan, who spearheaded the aforementioned LONDON SUITE.  "He's also very calm.  He's also very funny.  Dry.  He was also very supportive."

Rob Marshall is another director for whom Ashmanskas has great regard.  "Again, he's very comforting.  I guess that's the common thread here…He's also such a nice guy.  He's like someone's best friend.  He's deeply talented.  Little Me was the first Broadway show that he was directing.   Previously he had choreographed but with this show he was sitting in both chairs for Little Me.   He was a delight to work with.  He's a great fan of funny people and as a result we could not get through a run-thru because he was laughing so hard.  He just has a great sense of humor and that spreads through his direction and his choreography.  I loved working with Robbie."

"If I could generalize for one second, what I have come to need from a director is the sort of comfort they give.  They have to be there for you.  If there's even a moment of 'no' or 'wrong', the show will die.  I've been very fortunate in that the directors I've worked with have all had that common thread of being there for me as opposed to telling the actors that they should go here and do that.  I have worked for directors who are a little too by-the-numbers and they weren't very good collaborations.

Chatting in his dressing room at the Roundabout's Studio 54, where he's playing Chris, one of the more flamboyant and comic characters in Terrence McNally's 1975 comedy, The Ritz, the actor was amiable and relaxed.  The night before had been Halloween and two audience members in the front row had shown up in full drag.  "It made you wonder whether they came to see the show or to BE the show."  The important thing is they enjoyed the play immensely—as audiences have almost since this production started performances.  Those who read theater message boards know that they were filled with negative comments about the first few previews of this version of The Ritz. "They were probably right about that," comments the actor, "The first few preview performances were difficult for us and anyone who saw them would probably be right if they posted messages that said DO NOT SEE THIS SHOW.  Why go to the first preview because you know that they're working out the kinks."  Since then, the company has solidified the show and is running along like a well-oiled machine; something that is imperative for a farce.

The Ritz features a hard-working cast and Ashmanskas is among the hardest working of the group.  In fact, he works so hard that the time between performances on matinee days is precious to him.  "I try not to do anything in between shows except eat and sleep right here in the dressing room.  This kind of show is like a musical in that you need the rangiest sections of the voice; you need all of your energy physically…and that's just to start with.  You are greeted by a brand new audience at each performance and they will ask you to do things you had no idea that you would ever need to do.  In some ways it's much harder than a musical.  Besides, there really isn't that much time between shows.  When friends come to a matinee, I really don't have time to do more than just say 'hello' to them.  Hopefully they understand."

Of course, The Ritz is a farce and farce makes special demands upon the actors who are performing it.  "It's so hard," says Ashmanskas, "and it's dependant on so many things that you aren't in control of and that's difficult.  The whole thing about acting is to be prepared for anything and that can help.  So much of a farce, though, depends on the audience.  There are places where the laugh is part of the line's rhythm.  If the laugh is not there or it's less or it's more,  you have to do something to get the energy back where it belongs. That's not true in any other form, whether it's musical or anything else.  Farce is the most difficult thing to act in by far.  Still, it is extremely rewarding. When you're in the groove and you're riding the wave of that audience and they are game to go with you from the beginning, it's unlike anything I've ever felt in my life.  This is the third farce that I've done and I love it!"

The conversation veered to the popularity of farce in London and its customary poor reception on Broadway.  At any given point, such British farces like See How They Run, No Sex Please We're British and Not Now Darling can be seen on the West End, while on its American counterpart, the only recent successful farces have been the likes of Noises Off and Lend Me a Tenor. Moon Over Buffalo was a mild success at best.  By any definition, The Ritz is another exception, and has proven to be successful in both of its incarnations.  "I think the British sensibility is farcical," comments the actor.  "That's their sense of humor.   They own it and they really respond to a sort of slamming door situation.  Even if a play or musical isn't a farce, but has that element in it, the British really respond to it.  I don't think American audiences are used the genre.  It's hard work to be an audience member of a farce and I don't think people realize how much they need to show up.  This argument is layered but I don't blame them: they've shelled out four hundred dollars to take a couple of friends to a show where they're expected to laugh their asses off.  That's tough and I'm not blaming them, but the situation is notable."

One of the most beguiling moments in Ashmanskas' performance isn't when the focus of the action is on his character.  Instead, it's when others are front and center and he's in his room in the bath house and preparing it for the evening's activities.  "That was a result of Joe Mantello and set designer Scott Pask being so open.  Because of the nature of the set, the audience can see me the whole time I'm in my room and I'm not the kind of actor who likes to sit when I'm 'lit'.  Because Chris is sort of the clown of the show, my first idea was for him to carry a small bag like a clown car and he'd keep pulling huge things out of it while he completely redoes his room.  Of course he's not going to use THEIR towels and he's not going to use THEIR lotions or THEIR sheets.  So we sort of compromised with a relatively small bag and we have quite a bit of stuff in there.  It was Joe who suggested that we have a boa.  It was quite a collaboration between the three of us and it gives me a lot to do. It all comes from the situation, which is nice, too.  This guy Chris knows what he's doing."

Ashmanskas has nothing but praise for his fellow actors in The Ritz.  "I've known Kevin Chamberlin for fifteen or seventeen years. And this is the first full production we've done together.  We'd done a couple of infamous workshops together and I absolutely adore Kevin.  I love him as a person and he's a fantastic actor.  He's a dream to work with."

Rosie Perez is someone that Ashmanskas had never worked with before, but he has extremely kind words about her.  "She's the sweetest, funniest, silliest and most professional woman I've worked with in a long time.  She's great, great fun and has to be."

"Patrick Kerr is another actor I've never worked with.  His Claude is marvelous.  I don't want to seem too Pollyanna-ish, but I'm really a big fan of the people in this show.  Lenny Venito, who plays Carmine really IS Carmine.  He lives in Staten Island.  He's just fabulous.  We have a great mix in this cast."

Scott Pask's three tiered set is truly a marvel for the audience, but it presents some problems for the cast.  A walk across the stage of Studio 54 reveals that the playing area isn't very deep and the set goes virtually to the back wall of the theater.  It not only has three tiers and backstage escape ramps, but also has a spiral staircase   "There are moments backstage when the cast lines up against the walls to let other actors rush past them. Rehearsals were quite technical; especially in regards to scenes involving the several beds that are prominent parts of the action.  At first it was just 'let's just do it and figure out how we'll get through it.   They're single beds and Kevin is not a small person. Rosie has a huge wig on, too.  It was very technical and in that it took longer for it to click. It was hard in the beginning but now that everything has been worked out, it's great fun."

Perusing Ashmanskas' credits, one doesn't find any mention of television or film roles.  Is this because he considers himself a 'man of the theater'?  "Yes," he promptly replies.  "I'm not against film and television.  I've been fortunate to work relatively constantly and honestly I have not had the time to focus on other mediums.  If I had to choose between one or the other, I would choose the theater. Oh, I did a couple of days on a soap once and I did a movie recently but my little scene wound up being cut before the film was released.  I used to joke that my bio would read 'Brooks Ashmanskas (Chris) Film credits: none'."

Although Brooks Ashmanskas didn't win last year's Tony Award, it is certain that this committed and talented actor will certainly be winning the prize at some point in the future.  Certainly his work in The Ritz is worthy of such recognition. One doesn't have to be a prognosticator to realize that at a Tony Award is hovering at some point in this actor's future.  It can only be hoped that when the time comes, the person who is making the presentation is capable of pronouncing Ashmanskas' name without getting tongue-tied.

The Ritz is playing at Studio 54 at 254 West 54th Street in NYC.  Tickets may be purchased at the Roundabout's website: www.roundabouttheater.org  Performances are currently through December 9.

Photos: (top) Brooks Ashmanskas; (middle, photo by Joan Marcus) Brooks Ashmanskas and Terrence Riordan in The Ritz; (bottom, photo by Joan Marcus, l-r): Kevin Chamberlin, Rosie Perez, Terrence Riordan and Brooks Ashmanskas in The Ritz

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From This Author Joseph F. Panarello