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‘Fantasticks’ actor blazes trail

Fri., July 25, 2014

Broadway’s Free is first black man in lead role

NEW YORK – Not long ago, Kevin R. Free went to an audition for a part in the longest running musical in history. He immediately felt weird.

All the other actors vying for the same part were at least 10 years older and he was the only African-American. Looking around at his competition, Free was confused and getting increasingly angry.

“I just felt like, ‘Why am I here? I have to talk to my manager about this,’ ” he recalled, laughing. “I mean, ‘Why am I even here?’ ”

Free, a playwright, director and actor in New York’s downtown theater scene, pulled himself together enough to do a monologue and sing a song when his name was called.

It worked: He got both the job and a chance to make history. Free has taken over the role of Bellomy in “The Fantasticks,” the first time a black man has played the role in the New York show’s more than 20,000 performances over 54 years.

“If we’re talking about fictional stories – and if they’re so-called universal stories – they can be played by any race,” said Free, 45. “I really love doing the show.”

“The Fantasticks” – playing at The Snapple Theater Center, an off-Broadway complex in the heart of Times Square – has a cast of eight, two musicians, a cardboard moon and a guy who sprinkles confetti to create snow.

The tale, a mock version of “Romeo and Juliet,” concerns a young girl and boy secretly brought together by their fathers and an assortment of odd characters, including a rakish narrator called El Gallo, an old actor, an Indian named Mortimer and a character who doesn’t speak.

Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics, helped prepare Free for the role. “I don’t think he would say it was written for white people to do, but I don’t think he pictured me as it was written in 1952,” Free said. “But I think I fit really well in the show.”

Scores of actors have appeared in the show, from the opening cast that included Jerry Orbach and Rita Gardner, to stars such as Ricardo Montalban and Kristin Chenoweth.

Over the years, there has been a black El Gallo, and the lead girl has been played both by a Latina and an Asian-American. But Bellomy, her father, hasn’t been portrayed by an African-American before. No changes have been made to the script to address the fact that Free’s daughter is now being played by a white woman.

Catherine Russell, who co-produces “The Fantasticks,” welcomed the change, pointing out that mixed-race families are increasingly the norm.

“I’m really excited about that, and I’m really happy that that’s happening with ‘The Fantasticks’ also,” she said. “I think it should reflect modern life.”


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