BWW Interviews: What We Do: A Conversation with Peter Matthew Smith

BWW Interviews: What We Do: A Conversation with Peter Matthew Smith

"This show is such a great ride for the cast and the audience!" the actor says enthusiastically. Peter Matthew Smith is referring to his latest gig as Jerry Lukowski in back-to-back runs of the musical, The Full Monty, which opens Maine State Music Theatre's fifty-seventh season on June 4, after closing at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster. It is Smith's first visit to Maine and his second essay of the part of the unemployed Buffalo steel worker who organizes a male strip tease act to raise money for his child support payments.

A shared production between the Pennsylvania and Brunswick, Maine companies, both directed by Donna Drake, The Full Monty is "a show with such heart," though it also has the climatic number, "Let It All Go" which is an hilarious romp as Jerry and his "regular Joe" friends take it all off. "These are normal people in whom the audience sees a reflection of themselves. They root for the guys all the way so that when the strip number comes, the excitement has built, and it is huge fun! At the end of the day, it is really not about nudity; it is about ordinary people in trying life situations."

Smith says the nudity aspects seem totally natural to the cast - "after all we are all naked under our clothes" - and he feels the audience comes prepared to enjoy the fun. He tells of meeting fans in Lancaster who had seen the show three and four times and about his being amused one night to see "a woman in the front row waving dollar bills at the actors. Even in conservative Lancaster, the warmth of the story speaks to the audience," though some aspects of Terrence McNalley's book had to altered for the Pennsylvania public. "We removed some words that might have been offensive to that audience, but we have put them back in for Brunswick. It is a very well-crafted adult script, but one that has a great deal of resonance for today's audiences." Smith cites the musical's exploration of unemployment, blue-collar struggle, divorce and child custody issues, and homosexual love.

He identifies with his character, Jerry Lukowski's struggles not only in an abstract sense, but in a deeply personal one as well. "More than I would actually like to," Smith says with obvious emotion," because I am going through a divorce myself right now, and Jerry's predicament hits home. I have a daughter, and as in the show, I just want to be with her, so there are moments on stage that are very real and very difficult for me. Right now," he asserts, "the role most important to me is that of being a good father." Smith says he also identifies with the turmoil caused by Jerry's unemployment. And of Jerry's job loss he says, "He is a steel worker, and I am an actor, but I know what unemployment is. I also grew up in Pittsburgh, which was predominantly a steel town until not too long ago," so I understand the pain."

The actor who was born, raised, and educated in Pittsburgh, now makes his home in Lancaster, after spending several years in Ohio and nine years in New York. Smith talks about being bitten by the theatre bug as a child. "He likens his experience to that of the character Mike in A Chorus Line, who sings the lines about watching his sister "go pitter-pat - Said I can do that!" "My older sister was studying dance and acting, and I would watch her practice. I became interested, so I started performing too. When I was fourteen, an acting teacher pulled me aside and asked if I were serious about theatre because he thought I was talented. He was a mentor to me, and what he said changed my life. Years later I ran into him at an audition, and I went up to him, reintroduced myself, and told him how much those few words had meant to me and how they had charted my path. He was very happy to hear that and said he couldn't wait to go home and tell his wife! When someone you look up to can say just a few words to light that fire, it can make the whole difference! In the few times I have been the teacher, I have tried to do that with my students. I have tried to pay this encouragement forward. One of my former students is actually starring in the touring company of Newsies," he adds with apparent satisfaction.BWW Interviews: What We Do: A Conversation with Peter Matthew Smith

Smith's first engagement after college was to tour with RENT in the ensemble and covering Roger and Mark and then return to New York where he recurrently went on as Roger in accordance with the terms of the regular cast member's contract which allowed him to miss one performance a week. After RENT, Smith enjoyed a run of major Broadway shows and tours, among them Cry Baby, Mama Mia, and Fiddler on the Roof in which he played Motel. He was part of the original cast of Hairspray and toured nationally with that show as well as with Memphis. Of touring, a staple in an actor's life, he says, "I like to see the country, but I do not enjoy living out of a suitcase all year long. You get to a point where you just want to go home. That is why doing regional shows like this one is a great experience. You get to visit another part of the country and work closely with an ensemble for a period, and then you go home." He is especially pleased that his double booking in these two productions of The Full Monty has allowed him to "get to know his colleagues better and enjoy the extended time together."

Of the regional theatre experience, Smith says that he finds the productions are just as good as those on Broadway, and he feels theatres like the Fulton and MSMT serve vital roles for their communities. "They bring Broadway caliber shows to people who might not travel or are just being introduced to theatre." Asked about the tight production schedules that are a practical reality in regional theatre, he replies sanguinely, "I kind of prefer it that way. When we were doing the out of town tryouts for Hairspray in Seattle, we had nine weeks of rehearsal, and we actors felt we were ready in two weeks. We just needed an audience to give us the needed feedback."

Being flexible and retaining a certain element of spontaneous energy is one of the traits that seems to have made Peter Matthew Smith much in demand. He tells a pair of related stories about on-the-spur-of-the moment performances during his stint in New York. "Because I covered so much for so long, I got to the point where performing a role was like riding a bike for me," he explains. " And professionals in the business knew and valued that. "I got a phone call one day from the company manager at Hairspray, who asked me if I could 'do the show tonight.' It had been seven years since I had left that company, and I was doing RENT again at that point. They told me that there was no one else in New York who could perform Corny Collins that night, which happened to be New Year's Day, because the regular actor was on vacation, and the two covers were marooned on the tarmac in Florida where they had gone the previous evening to celebrate. The Hairspray company manager offered to arrange everything with the RENT people. I agreed, got down to the theatre, had them die my hair (which at that point was blond), and went on without a hitch."

Four months later, it came time for Smith to return the "favor" to the RENT company. "I was getting my license picture taken on 34th Street when I got a call asking me 'if I could do the show that afternoon?' Looking at my watch I realized we had only fifteen minutes until curtain, but I agreed and began to sprint the seven blocks uptown. I stopped along the way to call back and ask who I was playing, and thankfully, it was Gordon, because that had been the ensemble track role I had been last performing. I got there, into costume, and into "Places" before most of the rest of the cast, and everything went well."

He has a smile on his face as he calmly recalls the excitement of these two events. I marvel at how actors are able to retain roles with such seeming ease and call up characters from their artistic memory. I muse about where these characters reside in their consciousness? Their muscle memories? Their psyches? If I am expecting a complex and convoluted answer, the reply I get is delightfully disarming. "It is just what we do. The shows mean so much to us, and they stick with us."

Peter Matthew Smith says this as if it were the simplest thing in the world, yet as with any talented actor, this modest assertion only hints at the mystery of the stage magic he is able to create.

Photos Courtesy Maine State Music Theatre, production photo by Urdaneta

THE FULL MONTY runs at MSMT, Brunswick, ME, from June 4- June 20, 2015. 207-725-8769.

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