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Spokane’s Max Kumangai takes center stage as Hermes in ‘Hadestown’ on Broadway

It’s been 14 years since North Central High School graduate Max Kumangai moved to New York City to carve out a career as an actor.

During that time, he spent plenty of nights on Broadway stages – as an ensemble player in the original Broadway casts of “Waitress” and “Jagged Little Pill,” as a “swing” – a performer who has to be ready to step in for a fellow cast member at a moment’s notice – or as dance captain, responsible for ensuring a show’s choreography is crisp and perfect.

He’s had a few moments in the spotlight, too, stepping in to portray secondary characters in “Waitress,” for instance, or his small scene in “Jagged.”

But on Nov. 2, Kumangai donned a shimmery silver suit, put wings on his shoes and stepped out onto the stage of the Walter Kerr Theater and assumed the role of the Greek god, Hermes, in the Tony-winning musical “Hadestown.”

“He’s a showman, and the stakes are so high for him, and he wants the story to end differently this time,” Kumangai said. “It’s cool to go on that journey. He’s watching things unfold. Hermes is so focused on guiding these characters to make a new outcome. It’s fun to watch as the audience takes in what’s going on on stage.”

Kumangai is serving as an understudy to the actor playing Hermes, Lillias White. In White’s absence, Kumangai gets the opportunity to play a leading role in a hit Broadway musical.

It’s a significant step in his career. Hermes is a major role in “Hadestown,” Anais Mitchell’s retelling of the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. In Greek mythology, Hermes is the messenger god, and he also ferries the dead to the underworld. In the world of “Hadestown,” he is the show’s narrator; Hermes’ voice opens the show.

“I’m interested in seeing how this affects moving forward in my career,” he said. “I’m still in shock that I am playing this type of principal on Broadway. I played Cal and Joe in ‘Waitress,’ but they were supporting principals. … I think it will only help with the transition of going from the ensemble to going into more understudy roles on Broadway. I think it can only help. The fact that I’m understudying a role that leads the entire show, not a lot of people get that experience.”

The role was originated on Broadway by the legendary actor Andre De Sheilds, who won a Tony for his work in the show. Hermes is now being portrayed by an equally as prestigious performer, White, who won a Tony for “The Life,” and was Effie in the 1987 revival of “Dreamgirls.”

Kumangai knows stepping into this role, even for a short time, comes with huge responsibility.

“I think I played a narrator one other time in my life,” he said. “Your scene partner is the audience and that took a couple performances to get used to. I’m used to going on stage and ignoring the audience and making what’s happening on stage … my environment. Hermes is talking to the audience. The audiences is depending on him to move the story forward. That was interesting.”

He admits to being somewhat in awe of White, who he calls “the kindest, most nurturing soul ever,” and whose work in “Dreamgirls” he studied in depth while a theater student at the University of Michigan.

“This role is so iconic and to step into the shoes of Lillias White and her legacy – if you were to tell me as a college student who was obsessed with everything she did, that I was going to be her understudy, I would have laughed so hard at you,” Kumangai said. “I guess the stars aligned and here we are.”

Initially, Kumangai was scheduled to play Hermes for five performances, while White was off for a few days for another professional engagement. But before she could return to Hermes, White tested positive for COVID-19, which meant a mandatory 10-day absence from the show. Kumangai and the other understudy, Malcolm Armwood, split those additional performances, with his final one planned for today.

“It was a big deal,” he said. “And she’ll have four more performances that she can’t do toward the end of November, so those days I’ll split with the other understudy as well. So I’m getting really good time to play around with everything. It’s been great. And the director and associate director have been around and watching both of us go on, and luckily have been able to give us notes to enrich our performances. It’s been great. It really has been.”

Kumangai came to “Hadestown” in June. His run in “Jagged Little Pill” came to an end in December when the show closed. He then returned to “Waitress” for a 10-week tour before heading back to New York to join “Hadestown.”

Among the biggest highlights of his time as Hermes has been sharing the experience with friends and family. His parents, Katharine Kumangai and John Blanchette, both retired journalists with The Spokesman-Review, were in the audience the first night he took the stage as Hermes and for several performances afterward.

“It’s so cathartic of an experience. There was so much built-up anxiety of ‘Am I going to be able to do this with so many of my family and friends at my first performance?’ ” he said. “But that morning I woke up and thought, ‘You’re choosing to be anxious. Just choose to be excited.’ It literally changed my entire mood. I really was excited. I walked on stage and told myself, ‘You are perfectly imperfect, it’s OK if you mess up, but have fun.’ And I did. And I was so happy that I was able to that for myself.

“It was cool I got to share that with them.”

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