By Judith Cookis Rubens
Now part of the national tour of “Camelot,” Detroit native Chris Warren Gilbert credits his days of studying and performing with Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theatre as some of the best preparation for the rigors of a road show.
Gilbert plays King Arthur’s right-hand man, Sir Dinadan, in the musical adaptation of the King Arthur legend, which plays Grand Rapids’ DeVos Performance Hall from Jan. 30-Feb. 3. He also understudies the role of Lancelot, Arthur’s friend who has an affair with the king’s wife, Guenevere. With less than a day’s notice, Gilbert could have to step into a leading role – lyrics, sword fighting choreography and all.
“If I had to go on tonight, the adrenaline would kick in,” said the Los Angeles actor, by phone from a tour stop in Tempe, Ariz.
Gilbert earned his M.F.A. in 2002 from the Hilberry, a rigorous, three-year graduate program that then required students to perform seven shows a season in rotating repertory to prepare them for the professional stage. “Now I’m doing one show at a time and might understudy a role. But (at the Hilberry) I used to have five in my head all at once,” he said.
During his Hilberry tenure, Gilbert acted in 19 shows and won several local theater awards, including a Wilde Award (for playing John Worthing in “The Importance of Being Earnest”). “I think I became a better performer and I hope I became a better person in terms of my professionalism … it was all about the shows because we had paying customers (at the Hilberry),” he added.
Gilbert’s Hilberry tenure had special meaning for his family. His parents met in the theater back in the ’60s – his father was a graduate student and box office manager; his mother was an undergraduate theater student. The family later moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor, where Gilbert and his younger brother grew up amidst the theater scene of Ann Arbor’s Civic Theatre, where his parents performed and worked behind-the-scenes. “I grew up in green rooms, on prop sets and going to cast parties,” said Gilbert, whose first musical was Civic’s “The Sound of Music” at age 13.
After the Hilberry, he found work with Meadow Brook Theatre and Ann Arbor’s Performance Network. Gilbert spent two seasons at the Kentucky Repertory Theatre before moving to Los Angeles in 2004 to pursue theater, comedy and sitcom work.
This current incarnation of “Camelot,” the classic 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical that once starred Julie Andrews, Richard Burton and Robert Goulet, is now led by film/TV star Lou Diamond Phillips, playing King Arthur.
Gilbert is still awed by the fact that he gets to open the show alongside Phillips, of “La Bamba” and “Stand and Deliver” fame. “Standing there next to each other, we have the same reaction – we get to go play. I’m so lucky,” said Gilbert.
“Lou gives everything he has every night,” he added. “He’s a funny, fine actor and just a really good human being.”
Known for its romantic score and Arthurian swordplay, the musical is also peppered with joke-heavy dialogue, which Gilbert enjoys. “There’s quite a bit of comedy,” he said, adding the musical isn’t afraid to show characters’ human frailties either.
“They seem so handsome, so smart, yet there still can be a fall,” Gilbert said. “Maybe it’s sadder because of that.”
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
Broadway Grand Rapids at DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids. Jan. 30-Feb. 3. Tickets: $29-$67. For information: 616-235-6285 or visit http://www.broadwaygrandrapids.org.