BWW Interview: Comedy That Is Kind: A Conversation with Matt Gibson
"There's a quote from Thornton Wilder that I love. He writes, 'Anyone can make a comedy which is cruel; it is very hard to make a comedy which is kind. To give a fellow feeling between young and old - that's art. HELLO, DOLLY! is one of those old gems. It has some of the best of the best material in all of musical theatre."
Actor Matt Gibson is enthusing about his upcoming performances as Cornelius Hackl in Maine State Music Theatre's HELLO, DOLLY!, which runs from July 17 - August 3 at the Pickard Theater in Brunswick. "He might be my favorite character in the traditional canon," Gibson says of the innocent young man from Yonkers. Gibson has played the part twice before at the Virginia Music Theatre and Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatres, and he is thrilled to revisit the role in Maine, where he is just finishing a run of TREASURE ISLAND, playing the ill-fated sailor, Mr. O'Brien.
That kind of variety has defined Gibson's career from the start. He grew up in Rhode Island and began his involvement with the stage at age nine when he played Kurt in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Gibson went on to study dance, voice, and theatre in high school. "I was always an athletic mover," he recalls, smiling at how "between my freshman and sophomore years, I took ballet and tap with the little girls. There I was at 6' 4", but it gave me all the basics to become a competent dancer, and that skill became my bread and butter for the first five years after graduating college."
Gibson studied at New York University's Tisch School for the Arts, earning a BFA in musical theatre and a journalism degree. The latter came in handy for a brief stint as an intern at Broadway.com. "It gave me an interesting perspective on the theatre profession; it was enlightening to see how they cover events." The other valuable takeaway from his journalism studies has been his work as a writer, who has four short films to his credit, the mostn recent a comedy, DOGMATE, in which he also stars. "We are planning to submit it to some film festivals this fall. I think it's important to create your own content; the more you have out there that you are really proud of, the better chance you have to get seen for roles."
Gibson, who had also been working in summer stock throughout his college years, says he was fortunate "the day I graduated to join the national tour of the Trevor Nunn production of OKLAHOMA with Susan Stroman staging the show." He went on to perform a wide range of roles in New York and leading regional theatres, among them Warren in ON A CLEAR DAY, Joe Hardy in DAMN YANKEES, Lt. Cable in SOUTH PACIFIC, both Bob Wallace and Phil Davis in WHITE CHRISTMAS, Bobby in CRAZY FOR YOU, and Bob Crachit in the Goodspeed Opera's new musical version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL - a part to which he will return this holiday season. And in 2008 he made his Broadway debut as a Swing covering the Farm Boys and some character roles in the Arthur Laurents production of GYPSY which starred Patti LuPone - an experience Gibson calls "really clarifying and cool."
While Gibson's work has taken him to Maine before - he performed in the ensemble of ALL SHOOK UP at Ogunquit in 2009 - this is his MSMT debut. "I was offered a contract here in 2005, but I couldn't accept because of the OKLAHOMA tour," he notes, adding that he is finding the experience "totally enjoyable. I am very impressed with how this company is run and the quality of work they do." He also admires the precision with which the entire team functions on such a tight schedule. "I have done double duty before," he comments, "but never with so many matinees as here. That cuts into your rehearsal day in a major way, but the directors are saints, and we all do our homework and come in ready to go."
Gibson says he was thrilled to be a part of the East Coast Premiere of TREASURE ISLAND. "I always like to jump on an opportunity to be part of something from the ground floor. Working with new directors and new shows keeps you on your toes. Learning to adjust as an actor is a great experience. I loved being privy to conversations about what was getting cut and what was being kept."
But now, after offering Maine audiences a totally new musical, Gibson gets to return to one of the most beloved classics in the canon, HELLO, DOLLY!, and one of his most cherished parts. Of Cornelius, he says, "He wears his heart on his sleeve; he feels as if he should be living a little bit more. In general, everyone in the piece feels that way, and when they do [try to live more], they find they get so much more than they bargained for. Every time I revisit this piece, it feels to me as if I am offering that notion to the audience as a gift. It is very sweet."
Gibson says that to make credible a character like Cornelius, who is so innocent, is all about "being honest, not putting anything on, and revealing oneself - the truest version of oneself. That simplicity and naiveté is so charming to me and so much fun to play."
Other aspects of the part that Gibson funds fun include portraying the bad dancer that Cornelius is. "That's not easy, but sometimes people with strong dance backgrounds make the best bad dancers on stage." He is also enjoying working again with Michael William Nigro [TREASURE ISLAND's Jim Hawkins. Nigro plays Barnaby Tucker, Cornelius' friend and co-conspirator in their runaway adventure. "We pal around as side kicks," he says enthusiastically. And he is excited by the "amazing Ryan J. Moller costumes. Michael [Nigro] and I don't have as many changes as other characters because we are the little dowdy country mice until the end. But then I get to wear this beautiful, well-made suit, tailored specially for me. I would love to borrow it!"
Then, of course, there is the magnificent Jerry Herman score. "I love all those iconic moments," he says, citing "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment" as favorites. And there is Director Donna Drake's spin on the show - "she is playing up the farce a bit more, which should be fun for the audience" - and Rhonda Miller's new choreography that "is more elevated with ballet" than the original Gower Champion dances.
So despite the fact that HELLO, DOLLY! is a vintage work, what seems to make it a perennial favorite and what does it continue to say about life, love and marriage? Gibson answers earnestly, "I think it is one of those classics that informs our contemporary works. I feel the reason it has lasted so long is that everyone can relate to its message. HELLO, DOLLY! is about choosing adventure over safety in your life. It is simply one of the best!"
And, as Matt Gibson would surely attest, it is a kind comedy - kind in the truest of the word.
Photographs courtesy of MSMT
HELLO, DOLLY! runs at MSMT's Picmard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME from July 17-August 3, 2019 www.msmt.org207-725-8769