Bobby Smith faced unemployment. Now he’s singing about it.


Bobby Smith was rehearsing for the musical “Camille Claudel” in the spring of 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic nixed Signature Theatre’s would-be world premiere before a single performance. Shortly after, the veteran actor’s starring role in “Fun Home” at Studio Theatre was shelved as well. His part in a production of “The Producers” at Signature also fell by the wayside.

Fortunately for Smith, some of his side gigs as a teacher of acting and musical theater could continue remotely. But for the most part, the performer — beloved by D.C. audiences for his sly wit, playful charm and vibrant vocals — joined the ranks of the unemployed.

“I should be at an age right now where I’m comfortable and I’m not, and that [really] sucks,” says Smith, who turns 60 next spring. “The pandemic put that into reality, and I started thinking about, ‘What am I going to do?’ I don’t know how to do anything else. At my age, who is going to train me to do something else?”

It ultimately didn’t come to that for Smith. After emerging from a year-and-a-half pause from in-person performance with roles in Olney Theatre Center’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Signature’s “She Loves Me,” Smith is starring at Signature again in a musical that hits close to home: “No Place to Go,” Ethan Lipton’s ode to the unemployed that runs through Oct. 16.

Penned by Lipton in the wake of the financial crisis and originally performed by the playwright and composer at New York’s Joe’s Pub in 2012, the satirical, surrealist show follows an office drone named George as he grapples with joblessness when his “permanent part-time” position is relocated to Mars. It’s a one-man show of sorts, with George joined by a three-person backing band as he muses on corporate America and saunters through Lipton’s bluesy songbook.

“As I started to talk with Ethan about it, Bobby was always in my head,” says director Matthew Gardiner, who has worked with Smith on more than a dozen productions. “I just knew that, at the core, he was going to connect with this story and the journey of this character. Ninety-five percent of the show is just him speaking, and entering into that process with an actor that I don’t know feels scary and daunting. But somehow entering into that process with Bobby feels right.”

Explaining why he gravitated to the material, Smith calls the show “odd” but adds that the oddness is what he likes about it: “I think some of the most satisfying things that I’ve done have been the nonconforming pieces.”

The nature of George’s work as an “information refiner” is left purposely vague. The character clocks in and clocks out, plays for the company soccer team, and eyes the last, lonely sandwich in the conference room. Most crucially, the income allows George to pursue his passion for writing.

It’s not a direct parallel to Smith, who considers acting his day job. But work onstage is inherently irregular, and he’s the first to acknowledge that no one goes into regional theater for the money. So Smith has made ends meet by teaching on the side for the likes of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, several area universities and the Talent Machine, an Annapolis-based youth theater company.

“I think, in a good year, I might make $50,000” as an actor, Smith says, before mimicking the sound of a balloon deflating. Slipping into a rural twang, he adds, “People don’t respect you if you’re a performer. They might go, ‘Oh, what movies you done, hon? Are you in any movies?’ But you’re like, ‘No, no, hon. No, I’m not in any movies.’ ”

Smith’s shrewd self-deprecation sells himself short. The Ellicott City resident has racked up 17 Helen Hayes Award nominations for D.C. theater excellence, winning for MetroStage’s “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” in 2012, Signature’s “Spin” in 2014 and Signature’s “La Cage aux Folles” in 2017. Even as D.C. companies regularly turn to out-of-town talent, Signature has cast Smith time and time again over the past decade while nurturing his development into a hometown favorite.

Although that reputation and rapport made him a natural fit for “No Place to Go” in Gardiner’s mind, Lipton didn’t expect to rubber-stamp the first actor floated for the role. Yet, after performing the part some 150 times over the years, Lipton needed just a glimpse of Smith’s work to deem him a worthy successor.

“I have been involved in a lot of casting conversations over the years, but I have never been in a conversation to try to cast someone to replace myself,” says Lipton, who made some minor updates to the script for this production. “Immediately when I saw him, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s probably the person.’ He had this dryness and warmth and sense of humor to him, a great voice with character, and he had this thing where he let the audience come to him. That’s kind of an unusual quality in musical theater performers.”

Even though Gardiner has theatricalized the typically sparse musical with more ambitious design elements and stagecraft, Smith’s storytelling and vocals still carry the show. While the 59-year-old has rattled off a string of scene-stealing performances in recent years, the production marks his first leading role since Signature’s “A Little Night Music” in 2017.

“I have a lot more fun in shows that I don’t have as much responsibility,” Smith says. “Does that mean I’m lazy? It could. It could mean that, because I just want to come to work and have a good time. When you’re like, ‘Oh, fifth show of the week, I’ve still got three more, is my voice going to last?’ — there’s some neurosis involved. The shows I look forward to are the ones where I know that nobody’s out there.”

To Lipton, that character actor’s mentality is exactly what makes Smith right for the role.

“This piece isn’t about a character who’s trying to be a star,” Lipton says. “This show is about a guy who’s trying to hold on to what he has, so he can fulfill his purpose in the world. And Bobby really embodies that in a beautiful, human way.”

Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington. 703-820-9771.

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