BWW Interview: Stephen Mark Lukas: Chemistry?...Yeah, Chemistry!
"There's this line in the show that I think is key to understanding Sky and Sarah's romance. 'Chemistry?' she asks, and he says, 'Yeah, chemistry.' The message is that when that connection between two people happens, it doesn't really matter what you've predicted for yourself. What's real is the chemistry, not the intellectual idea. Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown each have qualities the other is lacking, and together they fill in the gaps."
The speaker is the charismatic young actor, Stephen Mark Lukas, who will be making his Maine State Music Theatre debut in his first ever performances as the suave gambler Sky Masterson in Frank Loesser Guys and Dolls, which runs at the Pickard Theater from June 28-July 15. Lukas, a Maine native, who grew up in Kennebunk before pursuing his vocation for theatre in New York City and in leading theatres across the country, is enjoying a homecoming of sorts. "I cut my teeth at local community theatres like Arundel's Sea Glass Performing Arts and Portsmouth's Seacoast Repertory and have performed at Ogunquit Playhouse, but this is my first time with MSMT. I actually have relatives who live in Brunswick, so this is a little like old home week," he smiles. He says he has been enjoying the rehearsal process greatly, that "MSMT ranks with the finest regional theatres in the country, and the entire company runs with the precision of a Swiss watch, making it easy for me to focus on my job. And then, too, the community has been very warm and welcoming, and it is a pleasure to see how important the theatre is to them The embrace of the community assures me that the arts are alive and well in Brunswick!"
Lukas, who plays opposite Kristen Hahn as Sgt. Sarah Brown, at first might have seemed an unlikely choice for the cocky, smooth-talking Sky Masterson. MSMT's Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark cast a wide net in looking for the right actor for the role. "Originally," Lukas recounts, "they wanted someone who was about forty, but I said to my agent 'I think I can bring something fresh to this.' He was able to get me an appointment to audition, and we made a really great connection. About a week later I received a call. When it's the right time and right role, it does happen easily." Lukas says that the first time he read the Guys and Dolls script "the words just came off the page. If you can create the chemistry in the room, then it will be believable."
Not only is this a role and house debut for Lukas, but it is also his first time working with director/choreographer D.J. Salisbury, an experience he is enjoying enormously. "D.J. is one of the most prepared directors I have ever worked with. He has the whole rhythm of the show in his head, and as an actor it is a gift to have that structure given to you. For me, once I get the technical aspects mastered, then I can color in the part, but I like to be given a solid road map to begin. This is especially important when you have less than fifteen days to put together a show. This way you start with the nuts and bolts of scenes, and then when you start running it in rehearsal, you can work on the emotional underpinnings."
And what are those underpinnings in this role which has been played by such iconic actors as Robert Alda and Marlon Brando? Lukas says whenever he approaches a character for the first time he asks himself the question 'What is this man's struggle? What doesn't he have?' For a white man in 1949, Sky Masterson thinks he has the world on a string, but then there is this moment when he discovers that he doesn't have all the tools he needs to succeed. That moment comes when he walks in and tries to seduce Sarah and she rebuffs him. It is the first tie that has ever happened to him, and he has to discover what it is he is missing. Both Sky and Sarah have rather fixed, stringent ideas about what they deserve in life, and they ultimately realize they do not have it completely figured out."
Like most actors, Lukas does his research and creates a backstory for his character to help him flesh out motivations. "To start I read the Damon Runyan story on which Guys and Dolls is based, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown. In it Sky Masterson comes from Colorado. I discovered that in that era many of the best gamblers came from Colorado, so I imagine that he was raised by a dad who was a gambler and a mom who was religious. He quotes his father's lessons and he also can quote scripture - (not to mention his real name is 'Obediah') -, so I think there was probably that tension between the gambling and the religion in his childhood. That likely caused him to leave home at sixteen or seventeen and head for Las Vegas. The story tells us he lives on the road, wearing a flashy suit and carrying with him a suitcase of cash. It's a sad life, really. So when the audience sees him in a mission uniform at the end, he has made a 180 degree about face."
Despite these psychological conflicts, however, Lukas believes that Sky Masterson must make everything LOOK easy. This is true of his music and his movement. "Sky can't appear to be struggling with anything. His music has to sound smooth and easy. A song like "My Time of Day" has to be sung in a very sensual, sexy, relaxEd Manner - like molasses. And the choreography as well. I am not a dancer per se, but I can pretend to be one when needed. D.J. has helped me find the way Sky moves - the stylized, period essence of the piece. And then for those incredibly talented dancers in the ensemble, he has given them something that is fresh, lively, often humorous with a contemporary flair."
Making it appear effortless is, of course the illusion any fine actor creates. Lukas admits that he is "not a true bass-baritone and he has to work to make Sky's music, which lies low for him, not seem contrived. And despite his youth and impressive resume, he has, of course, worked very hard to master his craft. Lukas tells how he was extensively involved in community theatre productions as a youngster - 'but as a hobby. My parents always thought I should not pursue acting as a career."
Lukas went to Phillips Exeter Academy for his secondary school education, and it was there he made the decision that the stage would be his vocation. "My classmates were all applying to Harvard and Princeton, and I knew I could go that route as well. In fact, I did get accepted to Bowdoin and considered an undergraduate liberal arts degree before studying theatre. My dad was worried, and he called my voice teacher at Exeter and said he was concerned that I was going to drop everything and run away to Broadway. And that is exactly what I did do! I asked myself the question 'what else would I do?' and I couldn't answer it. And I decided if I worked hard enough at theatre, I could probably make a living, and I could not say 'no' to that opportunity. So I enrolled in NYU's CAP 21 program. I have always felt the decision was made for me."
Not long after graduation, Lukas landed a gig as the standby for Elder Price in The Book of Mormon on Broadway, and he went on to play the role outright on the national tour. He recalls the "wonderful blur" that was his Broadway debut. "I got the call while I was at the gym, and I had four hours notice. I hurried over to the theatre, and the next things I remember is singing "I Believe," the beautiful eleven o'clock number in the second act and then signing autographs at the stage door. It was sort of like that scene in Phantom of the Opera where Christine is singing at rehearsal, and then everyone swarms around her and helps her get on her costume and wig and she goes on. It was the experience of a lifetime!"
Since that time, Lukas has added to his repertoire a remarkable list of leading roles at some of the country's finest regional houses. Most of these are in the lush, romantic, so-called "legitimate" Broadway canon from Joe Hardy in Damn Yankee,s to Lt. Cable in South Pacific, to Lancelot in Camelot, and Curly in Oklahoma. These last two remain among the actor's favorites to date. "I have done Oklahoma four times now, and I hope never to put that character down. It suits my voice, and if you can make it be funny and sexy and ring true for a modern audience, then it is gold." The same is true for Lancelot, which he recently did at the Westport Playhouse in Connecticut. "It was a dream to sing 'If Ever I Would Leave You!'"
Lukas remembers his initial connection to music and musicals of this golden age. "My parents had taken me to the Ogunquit Playhouse, and John Raitt was in the audience. When he stood up to be acknowledged, I remember thinking 'that's what I want to do!' These roles and these musicals have a grandeur and lushness that is hard to beat."
And it is just that soaring quality which appeals most to Lukas and what he believes will make this Guys and Dolls enchant its audiences. "This show is the quintessential musical comedy and the quintessential romantic comedy. There is this wonderful aspect of redemption in it. The characters all get a second chance, and that is something everyone needs at some point. TI think this production of Guys and Dolls will transport the audience to a simpler time, and I know they will leave the theatre feeling entertained, swept away by the beautiful score, and thrilled at having experienced a classic. Guys and Dolls is a golden age musical that both created and broke the mold for musical comedy."
For Stephen Mark Lukas, it is, after all, about emotion, the connection - and chemistry!
Photographs courtesy of MSMT, Roger Duncan, photographer & Stephen Mark Lukas
Guys and Dolls runs from June 28- July 15, 2017, at MSMT's Pickard theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 04011 www.msmt.org 207-725-8769