January 20, 2000
We're beginning to see the light about Richard Allen, whose comic turn in Play On! was no fluke.
by Rob Kendt
His bio in the program for Play On! at the Pasadena Playhouse last year was enigmatically sparse, merely thanking director Sheldon Epps for casting him but naming no previous credits. Could Richard Allen—who played Rev, a pompous Harlem club manager composed of equal parts Shakespeare's Malvolio and The Dick Van Dyke Show's Mel Cooley—be a novice who just happened to have a natural talent for musical comedy?
Back Stage West, which honors Allen with a Garland award for his performance, was not surprised to learn that Allen's endearing guilelessness and awkwardness as Rev were not lucky byproducts of inexperience but elements of a meticulous, heartfelt, well-modulated performance. In a recent interview, Allen filled us in on a diverse and solidly theatrical resum that began at Carnegie Mellon, continued at London's Drama Studio, and later included a decades-long career in regional theatre, particularly on the West Coast.
"I'm what they call a ‘5 Freeway' actor," said Allen, referring to the Interstate that runs from San Diego and has shuttled him from Seattle Rep to South Coast Rep, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to A Noise Within, doing mostly classical and straight play roles.
But it has been in off-the-beaten-track musical theatre projects that Allen has his most auspicious credits—Elizabeth Swados' The Haggadah, Peter Sellars' staging of John Adams' I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, and George C. Wolfe's Jelly's Last Jam. These culminated with the role of Booker T. Washington in the Toronto-based world premiere of Ragtime (he left the show in a contract dispute with Livent impresario Garth Drabinsky).
That resumé may have gotten Allen in the door for Play On!, but he still had to win over director Epps and his colleagues, choreographer Mercedes Ellington and music Rahn Coleman—who, as Allen recalled, "didn't know me from Adam."
Epps was impressed. "Richard is both a real actor/singer and a singer/actor, meaning that he's got a wonderful voice, but he also applies an actor's sense to telling the story and playing an intention in musical material," said Epps. This actor's flexibility also helped Allen, a non-dancer, master Ellington's exuberant dance sequences, including the jitterbugging "I'm Beginning To See the Light," in which he flung chorines around in a bright yellow zoot suit.
Perhaps the highlight of Allen's performance was his comic quartet with some prankster underlings who, to the irresistible vamp of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," set out to loosen him up under the guise of making him more attractive to his beloved Lady Liv. Allen depicted Rev's attempts to swing with memorable broadness—a chicken walk that looked more like a wounded sashay, some herky-jerky finger-snapping, and "scatting" that sounded like a sheep being strangled—but rooted them in Rev's needy, pathetic character rather than playing strictly for laughs. That wasn't always easy, Allen explained.
"In a show so physically comic, sometimes you forget what actions got you to the point where you are," Allen said. "Sometimes you want to change what it is you do that gets you there; it feels labored and stale to you as an actor after you've done it 35 times." What often bailed him out was the number's improvisational leeway, in which Allen played beautifully off his co-stars Clinton Derricks, Yvette Cason, and Kevin Ramsey.
Allen also brought special poignancy to Rev's tender ballads, "Don't You Know I Care" and, with Nikki Crawford's Lady Liv, "Something To Live For." By the time he reached the euphoric "I'm Beginning To See the Light"—and then weathered the intended humiliation with heartrending pathos—this was no longer the "high-sa-diddy Negro" of the opening.
"The Rev you see at the end is not the same Rev you see at the top—he's kinder, gentler," said Allen. "He has to be to openly profess his love, which he's never done, except in a—and I say this in quotes—‘buffoonish' way."
Those quotes around "buffoonish" may be the most telling detail about Allen—a reedy, deep-voiced, serious man whose sardonic sense of humor is almost unnoticeable at first. Once you catch the point at the end of his soft-spoken comments, though, they can be rapier-sharp.
"I'm still the enigma here—nobody knows what to do with me," Allen said about his career. "I get cartoon work because of my deep voice. But to most people I'm still the straight-faced guy who does the classics—primarily because I don't end every sentence with ‘know what I'm saying.' "
The enigma may stay under wraps: Allen is now more interested in directing theatre rather than acting in it. "I have an opinion and a viewpoint that can better be served in directing," he said. There has been talk of a Play On! tour since its smash success at the Playhouse last fall. If Allen truly intends to hang up his acting hat, his hilarious and moving Rev would make a fine laurel to rest on.