While Chad Kimball builds Tony buzz for his exhaustive lead performance as Huey Calhoun in the new musical Memphis, his understudy Bryan Fenkart is making a very visible Broadway debut. Having performed the role a handful of times since the New Year, the New Jersey native is getting his chance to bask in the spotlight of one of Broadway’s flashiest male roles.
Growing up in Midland Park, Fenkart wasn’t set on acting. He joined his first high school production on the terms of a lost bet. Yet after the interest took, he studied acting at Rutgers moved to New York. With a three-year stint as a doorman for the Times Square comedy club Carolines behind him, the 30-year-old has made his way to a different Broadway venue and is learning the lessons of performance-induced amnesia and even how to dance. Yes, after being cast in the role.
You’re making your Broadway debut understudying the male lead in a new musical. How does that make you feel?
It is really an honor. I didn’t train in musical theater, but I do love it and everything I’ve seen. Coming in for Memphis, I fell in love with the part of Huey. It’s everything that you would want, as an actor. It’s a very distinct physicality that’s different from my own. It’s got an accent. He’s got a drinking problem by the second act. Even as an understudy, to be able to have the opportunity to do that is a great thing. Also, to have somebody like Chad Kimball do the role and watch him every night is pretty awesome. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he brings to that part. He fully immerses himself in it and I love what he does. To be able to watch that and then change it on my own is pretty awesome.
***VIDEO AFTER THE JUMP: Bryan Fenkart would get “beat up” if he wore Huey’s clothes outside the theater.***
What does it feel like when you’re in your moment as Huey, whether it’s in your favorite scene or taking your final bow?
Taking the final bow for my first performance as Huey was pretty surreal. I remembered being in the auditorium of Midland Park High School, seeing my parents in the second row and taking a bow. To flash forward 10 or more years and see my parents still in the second row and I’m taking my final bow at the Shubert Theatre after carrying the show was pretty surreal. Especially since the Shubert was where I saw my first Broadway show, Crazy For You. I got very choked up and teary with that first one.
What is the longest period you’ve gone without performing the role of Huey?
The first time I went on was in January—we opened in October. Since then, I’ve gone on almost once every two or three weeks. I’ve gone on for a couple of stretches—three shows here, four shows there, for a grand total of 13 now. The longest I’ve gone without performing the role since I’ve started is two or three weeks.
What’s the shortest notice you’ve been given before performing?
An hour and a half. Luckily, I had gone on before. The first time I went on, I knew the night before. That was a blessing and a curse, because I didn’t sleep. The hour and a half one wasn’t as scary. I had gone on five or so times before that. I knew Chad wasn’t feeling well; he had sounded a little scratchy. Sure enough, at 6:30 p.m., I got the call saying I was going to go on as Huey. If that had been the first time for me though, that would have been terrifying.
Tell me about your first performance as Huey.
The cliché of getting shot out of a cannon is accurate. It felt like getting shot by a cannon. When we rehearse as understudies, we’re rehearsing with folding chairs and stage management. We don’t have the other actors, we’re not surrounded by 29 dancers on the stage flailing around, moving columns and a radio booth that comes out of the stage. Going into a set that huge was very difficult and intimidating. The costumes changes are so fast, and we didn’t get a chance to rehearse those either. Luckily, my dresser is an angel and was saying under his breath, “Do the pants first. Now do the shirt,” in my ears. It’s amazing how much even the order of getting changed is something you have to think about. I got off stage after the first performance and stage management asked, “How’d it go?” and I said, “I have no idea what just happened!” I felt like I had lost two and a half hours of my life. Somehow all the words came out and all the costume changes happened. I didn’t kill anyone, so it worked somehow. But it was complete and total amnesia.
I had a second show to do that day, so I forced myself to get more comfortable. There’s a scene where Huey is in the radio booth and Bobby, his friend, is squeegeeing the booth window, and he’s inside doing a commercial. I as just trying to get comfortable, and I leaned my arm outside the window that he was squeegeeing, and in my head I was saying, That’s glass, don’t do that. You’re in a soundproof radio booth; keep your wits about you!
People are usually disappointed when understudy cards fall out of a Playbill. How do you feel about that?
I can understand. I’ve had that experience when I’ve seen shows. I get it. Taking nothing away from Chad and Montego [Glover], but I think I’m lucky to be in a show where people aren’t coming to see Alec Baldwin or whomever. People aren’t paying for the names; they’re paying to see this show that’s been getting a lot of great reviews and a lot of word of mouth. I have the benefit that most people aren’t as much coming to see Chad Kimball as they are coming to see Memphis.
What does your family think of your understudy status?
They love it. My parents are just happy to see me on stage. But I’m a star in their eyes, so they are always asking me questions like, “Do you get to take over the role when Chad leaves?” I say, “I don’t know! I don’t know how it works! The show might close, God forbid!” They’re always asking questions I can’t answer.
Do you have nights where you’re not scheduled to go on, but you’re feeling really good, and you think “I am so in the mood to KILL IT as Huey tonight!”?
Almost every night, I would rather be doing that part. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling that, because it’s an amazing role and I love performing it. It’s something I feel like I do well. It’s the reason I got cast in the show. They had to teach me to dance at the rehearsals, because it’s something I didn’t have to do at the auditions. Huey doesn’t dance in the show. I came into the show to understudy and my second job is to be in the ensemble. My primary job is to understudy Huey. Do I want to be playing that part every time I go to the theater? Yeah, absolutely! But could I? I don’t even know how Chad does it eight times a week. It’s a monster. He’s superhuman for being able to act it as often as he does.
Explain your ensemble role.
I dance a little bit. They made a considerable effort to remove me from most of the major dance numbers. They knew that I wasn’t a dancer. I’ve never taken a dance class. I certainly was not offended by that. It’s a Broadway show; there’s no such thing as ‘good enough.’ I dance in two or three songs, and even then it’s minimal. They knew what they were getting into. I’m clunky; I do what I can. I do backup vocals and any time a guy comes out and steals Felicia’s purse or rips a speaker off the wall—a bunch of the random, racist white dude [antics].
Who understudies you?
Charlie Williams is the white male swing; he covers all those ensemble parts. There was a time when I went on for Huey and someone else in the ensemble was out, and they were able to cut my track for the most part. Most of the stuff they have me doing in the ensemble isn’t integral; they could have anybody do it. It’s not a difficult track by any means. They either just filled in the gaps with somebody else, or took my part out entirely.
Do you find you have a special connection with the person you understudy, Chad Kimball?
He’s become one of my closest friends in the show. He’s been helpful in ways I think most other actors wouldn’t have been. Because I didn’t get a chance to work on the character so much during rehearsals, I had to ask him a lot of questions about his motivations as the character and what brought him from points A to B in a scene. He was always very helpful with trying to help me reach the emotional life of the character. He’s just such a funny, quirky dude. It’s fun to go out and get a beer after the show—sometimes we will talk shop and sometimes we won’t.
Today’s understudies are tomorrow’s Broadway stars. What are your thoughts and hopes regarding that notion?
I believe that. I have no doubt that I will get there. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could. I’m not somebody who ended up here by accident. A lot of people will say, “You’re so lucky to be where you are,” and I say, “I don’t believe in luck.” I don’t believe that I’m lucky; I believe that I worked my ass off to get where I am, and I will continue to work my ass off, because this is where I want to be and there are many more rungs above me where I want to get to. For me, this is a lily pad—a very important and large one, the biggest one I’ve jumped to yet—but there are many more in front of me.