BWW Interview: Twenty-six Roles and Counting: Charis Leos at Maine State Music Theatre
"I love it here! This Always, Patsy Cline will be the twenty-sixth production I've appeared in with MSMT, and by the end of this summer, the number will be twenty-nine." Actress Charis Leos - a huge favorite with Maine audiences and critics alike - is reflecting on her long association with the Brunswick theatre and what the future holds for her here and in the other numerous regional theatres where she lights up the stage with her vibrant, inimitable gifts as a musical theatre performer.
Leos' first appearance at MSMT was in Nunsense II in 1995 and except for a brief hiatus, she has been back especially in recent years, every season, creating such memorable portrayals as Rose in Gypsy, Mme. Thenardier in Les Misérables, Mama Morton in Chicago, Hannigan in Annie, Paulette in Legally Blonde, Maggie in 42nd Street, Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein. This summer she reprises one of her signature roles, Louise in Always, Patsy Cline, and takes on the challenge of two new parts, Adelaide in Guys and Dolls and Miss Lynch in Grease.
"Louise is one of my favorite roles," says Leos who will be playing the character for the fourth time in MSMT's season opener. She last appeared in the role at the Pickard in 2010, but she says this new production is markedly different. "The scale of the show can be whatever you want it to be, and here the concept and production are large and the staging and direction have changed. Also, my Patsy is different [Christine Mild] so my energy is different. Christine and I have never performed together before, but we struck up a rapport immediately, so much so that people ask if we have known each other for a long time. She is brilliant at what she does!"
And indeed, each of the two characters in the show serves a different function. "Louise is the storyteller, and 99.9% of the singing belongs to Patsy," Leos explains. "People always ask me 'Don't you want to be singing those songs?' And I know I could because the music sits in a good place for me, but my answer is still 'no.' When I was first approached to do the show, I was asked which part I would like to play. But from the moment I read the script, I knew it had to be Louise. The role sounds as if it were written for me, and her character made complete sense to me because I have a ton of family in Texas; I went to college there, and she sounds like so many people I know. Even though she talks for two hours, it was not hard to learn because it came so naturally to me. So this works out perfectly for us both. Honestly, I don't know how Christine does what she does every night and sounds that great every time. She is miraculous! I feel we are both doing exactly what we should be doing in this show."
That Leos is a veteran at playing Louise is a plus, since she is doing what most actors do at MSMT - "double-duty." That is, she is performing in Always, Patsy Cline at the same time she is rehearsing Guys and Dolls which will open three later. It's a routine that is a fact of life in busy regional residential theatres, but in this case the stakes are higher for Leos since this is her debut as Adelaide. "It's a role that has been on my bucket list for a long time," she confides, "and I am really excited about getting to do it. My Nathan Detroit, Jamie [James] Beaman and I have never worked together, but as soon as he knew we were both cast, he reached out to me which I really appreciated and so did director D.J. Salisbury. So it will be exciting to work with these new colleagues as well as some old friends."
Leos muses that Adelaide has always been portrayed with a thick New York accent, but that in actuality, in the script, she is from Rhode Island. She guesses part of that is the overlay from the Damon Runyan stories, and she says "I will be singing the sings and doing the dialect people expect."
Leos loves the musical and dramatic idiom of the Frank Loesser. "I think I was born too late. I love the old school musical theatre. That's how I talk and even the body language makes sense to me." She concedes that when Guys and Dolls was first produced in 1950, it was considered a little naughty and risqué - "Adelaide is a stripper after all - though now it is relatively tame by today's standards. She does find it curious, however, that the musical is so often produced by junior high and high schools without their seeming to realize the racy subtext of this underworld milieu.
The third assignment for Charis Leos this summer will be the feisty Miss Lynch in Grease. The musical - though not that particular role - is another one that has log been in her wish list, albeit to play Rizzo. "At seventeen I would have killed to get that part. I arrived at college after they had completed auditions, and that was the last time I was somewhere where it was being done. Now, that ship has sailed. As I said to my colleague Tony Lawson, 'We are the old people in this one. We get to play the grown-ups.'"
Asked what makes Grease such a perennial favorite with audiences, she cites the timelessness of the music. "People have connections to those songs. They may have seen the movie or the play; they know all the music and they come to the theatre for a great time - to be entertained and to care about the characters in the show."
After such a busy past year that included Beauty and the Beast, and Always Patsy Cline at the Fulton and now a full summer, Leos is planning to take a little personal time for family. "A number of wonderful things have come up and I have a few irons in the fire, but I have to look at the big picture and try to balance work with my kids and family who are so important to me." Leos and her husband, Greg Deivert, have welcomed two granddaughters recently and she looks forward to spending the holidays with little Violet and her parents and to doing some travel with her soon-to-be retired - partially at least - spouse. "The next gig I am already committed to is in January back at Lancaster's Fulton Theatre" where she will reprise the role which won her huge acclaim in Portland last year in The Irish and How They Got That Way.
Meanwhile, Charis Leos continues to thrive on performing her varied, colorful repertoire and checking off little by little roles from her wish list. If she finally gets to do Guys and Dolls and Grease on stage this summer, there are still a few cherished parts of which she dreams. "I don't have a huge bucket list, but Sweeney Todd has always been high on it. I remember sitting at the edge of my seat when I saw it for the first time at seventeen in Texas. I would love to play Mrs. Lovett and it would be perfect if I could do it with David Girolmo. [Girolmo has been another beloved presence at MSMT, now appearing in War Paint on Broadway.] David did it in Chicago, and I have heard he was brilliant, so if we could somehow make that happen someday, somewhere...."
She trails off wistfully and this writer thinks to herself: What magnificent casting! Charis Leos, I want to be there front row center for that performance!!
Photos courtesy of Charis Leos, MSMT, and the Fulton Theatre
Always, Patsy Cline runs at MSMT's Pickard Theatre, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME, June 7-24; Guys and Dolls from June 28-July 15, and Grease from July 19-August 5, 2017 www.msmt.org 207-725-8769