Southern California’s very own Christopher Spencer is returning to his hometown turf as Maurice in Disney’s Beauty And The Beast, opening November 16 at Costa Mesa’s Orange County Performing Arts Center for a one-week run.  We caught up with the busy actor as he prepared for Opening Night only minutes from where he grew up.  


Chris, you’re from Santa Ana originally? Did you grow up in Orange County? 
I was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, the heart of Orange County.

Can you talk a bit about your first exposure to theater?

It wasn’t until I was nine years old that I had my first exposure to live theater. My older sister, a sophomore at the time, was appearing in the ensemble of her high school’s Spring musical, Call Me Madam. Sitting in the front row of the house that night, I was completely captivated. I wanted to jump up on the stage! 

What were the first shows you did as a young performer?

It was in high school when I first performed in front of an audience.  I played a munchkin in The Wiz and it became my entire young world at the time. I probably drove my poor mother crazy from talking incessantly about The Wiz for three months straight. However, as much as I loved theater and performing, I could only allow myself to consider it as a social activity, a hobby which would end once my senior year came to a close. Being an actor just wasn’t encouraged by my parents. I didn’t perform again for several years—after college, when I was closing in on thirty.
Chris as Mr. Mushnik in LIttle Shop Of Horrors

You’ve clearly made up for lost time in the years since, getting to portray some of musical theater’s most iconic roles including Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, the MC in Cabaret, Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar and Mr. Mushnik in Little Shop Of Horrors.  How do you go about making these well known roles into Christopher Spencer roles?
I avoid watching film versions or listening to cast recordings of a musical while in rehearsals. Not that I’m in the habit of copying or stealing from other actors. I just don’t want someone else’s choices to inadvertently seep into my subconscious.  I’ll read the script and go over the lyrics several times before rehearsals begin.  I try to find some hint or secret regarding the character by examining the specific words the writer has chosen.  Why the writer constructed a line of dialogue a certain way is something I always consider.

Chris as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Pseudolus must have been especially fun to play.
I never thought I’d get a chance to play Pseudolus, but it’s always been a dream role of mine.  The bawdy, naughty, vaudeville humor is what most people know of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, but I always tried to remember the earnest, urgent dream of Pseudolus. Without wallowing in pathos, I tried to keep in mind the sweet simplicity of his goal, his dream. He just wants to be free!  Also, it’s an incredibly physical role! I felt as if I were running a marathon during every performance.  I performed Pseudolus in rep with two other productions.  I think I lost fifteen pounds that summer… Just wish I had kept it off.

Urinetown The Musical

Do you have another favorite role in addition to Pseudolus?

A role that I absolutely loved playing, but one that isn’t exactly iconic would be Mr. Cladwell in the musical Urinetown.  I had seen the original cast on Broadway and thought, Now, that’s a show I have to do someday.  When the chance came along, I jumped at it. One of my favorite experiences in theater.

You’ve been nominated for LA Weekly and Garland Awards and won the OC Weekly Theatre Award for your work in a straight play, Marat/Sade. How often do you get to do non-musical roles? 

I would say that my resume is half and half. I jump back and forth between musicals and plays fairly regularly. 

Do you have a preference?

It’s funny, whenever I’m doing a play, I’m always thinking, I want to do a musical next.  If I’m performing in a musical, it’s vice versa.  For me, musicals have more of an ensemble vibe. There’s a camaraderie within a musical cast that I haven’t found anywhere else.  Urinetown was especially like that for me. 

And what about straight plays?
With a play, there’s nothing like tackling a monolog.  Knowing it’s just you and the audience and you’re trying to pull them into the story of your character.  No orchestra playing the underscore. No gorgeous dancers in beautiful costumes twirling upstage. Connecting with an audience in those moments, it’s a feeling like no other.  Not to say that I haven’t felt that connection while performing in a musical. Cabaret provided me some truly incredible moments of symbiosis with audience members.  

Chris as the MC in Cabaret

Can you give an example of that symbiosis?

During one performance, after I sang the last line in “If You Could See Her,” a woman in the front row reached up and lightly touched my chin. That was thirteen years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday.  

Much of your work has been L.A./OC based, including a pair of performances at FCLO Music Theatre in Oliver! and White Christmas, both of which I was fortunate to see you in. What do you have to say to people who opine that there is no theater in Los Angles and Southern California?
Actually, some of my friends who are originally from the East Coast insist there are more theater companies to be found in Los Angeles than in New York.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know we have many store front/equity waiver venues in LA. Many are fly-by-night companies—friends getting together and putting on a show and then quickly running out of cash, but some Los Angeles based, non-profit theater companies, like Open Fist, Theatre Banshee, Sacred Fools, and Theatre of NOTE have grown steadily over many years. 

And Orange County?

Orange County has its share of theaters doing some incredible work too.  Of course, South Coast Rep and Laguna Playhouse have been on the map for several years. However, smaller companies like Maverick, The Chance, Theatre Out, STAGEStheatre, Hunger Artists, Rude Guerilla (which has now morphed into Monkey Wrench) have been producing challenging material over the years and are finally being recognized by L.A.-based critics and audiences as a major source for top notch productions.

You toured last holiday season in the Nebraska Theatre Caravan’s production of A Christmas Carol. Was this your first time touring the East Coast, and in the dead of winter no less? 

It was my first time touring!  Talk about a baptism by fire! The tour was comprised of mostly one-nighters and regularly we would drive directly to the venue without stopping at our hotel first. On one occasion, we had to drive through the night just to make our next date.  The size of the venues we played would change dramatically from one city to the next, so much so that it was necessary to cut set pieces and even some dancers from group numbers because there simply wasn’t enough room on the stage.  In one venue, the space was so small that the ladies had to remove the hoops from their period skirts.

Right after A Christmas Carol you joined the Beauty And The Beast tour.  How has that experience been so far?
Touring with Beauty and the Beast is a dream come true.  To work with the original creative team from the Broadway production—director Rob Roth, choreographer Matt West, Tony winning costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, scenic designer Stan Meyer, and lighting designer Natasha Katz—has been an incredible, life changing experience.  Linda Wolverton, the book writer, was present for our rehearsals in Long Island and for the opening in Providence, Rhode Island.  She worked on a scene between Belle and Maurice.  How fantastic is that!?  

Chris enjoying the Hawaiian sunshine

Have there been any particularly exciting places you’ve played at?

We’ve played some breathtaking venues, many with long theatrical histories.  We played the Shubert in New Haven, Connecticut! Julie Andrews played the Shubert in My Fair Lady over fifty years ago!  We’ve seen so much of this country, cities I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to visit. We played in Honolulu!  I’d never been to Hawaii before.  The producers have been so good to us on this tour. 

You must wake up every morning pinching yourself!

There isn’t a day I don’t realize how fortunate I am to be a working actor, performing in a first rate production with so many exceedingly talented people.  Especially in this economy, to be a working actor, it’s almost embarrassing to complain.  I know Southern California is my home, whether I’m in Long Beach or on a stage three thousand miles across the country. So, when I start to feel homesick, I just remind myself of this remarkable opportunity I’ve been given.

I’d guess that Maurice is the first animated character you’ve brought to life. Had you seeing the Disney film when it first came out? 

As a matter of fact, I was working at Disneyland when the film was released! I worked in merchandise on Main Street within the park and I still remember when the film opened.  It was this immediate and massive hit.  We couldn’t keep the merchandise on the shelves! I even remember the Beauty And The Beast stage show from the park, which was what developed into the Broadway production a few years later. I hadn’t started acting yet so, in those days, I never would have imagined that I’d be playing Belle’s father one day. Disney has had a huge impact on my life. I know that Disney and Beauty And The Beast is incredibly important to so many people. Audiences of our show will experience the same storyline from the film with even more music.  

Do you feel any special responsibility to match your stage performance to the one children have grown up watching over the past nineteen years?

Our director, Rob Roth, was generous with cast.  He allowed us to play with the material and give the characters our own interpretation … our own personal stamp. Linda Wolverton was present for much of the rehearsal process and she regularly worked on the script, changing lines here and there. It’s the same story that so many people cherish, but with a fresh look and tone. The message of the material is so beautiful and it’s still intact—learn to accept others for who they truly are and not rely on appearances. 
How do the Beauty And The Beast audiences compare to the ones you usually perform for?

Many of our audiences are comprised of people who grew up with the film. It’s material that holds a special place in thousands and thousands of hearts.  Now those people are bringing their children to share in something that was a huge part of their childhood.  For many of those children, it will be their first experience with live theater.  No pressure!  I still remember the first musical I ever saw and to know that I will be a component of the first musical for so many children—and some adults. It inspires me to do my best work at every performance.

What do you think audiences “take home” from Beauty And The Beast?
I truly believe that the essentials to any audience are ultimately the same: we all want to see a good story brought to life with honesty, vibrancy, enthusiasm and heart.

I see that The Beauty And The Beast tour is doing a number of one-night-stands. Are there any particular challenges in moving so quickly from city to city, and even state to state?

Actually, we’ve only had one one-nighter so far and that was back in February or March when we played Pensacola, Florida.  However, we do have a few in December.  The two most important things for me to remember when dealing with one-nighters or split weeks: get plenty of sleep and stay alert and organized. The downside to a one-nighter is that it’s not exactly conducive to sightseeing. A huge perk in touring this country is being introduced to unfamiliar cities. We were recently in Santa Barbara for only two nights, but we still managed to take in the downtown area and a few of us even went whale watching.  The key is staying organized and making plans for your visit … much like a vacation. 

Any thoughts about the week you’re about to spend in your very own neck of the woods?

It’s the most important stop on this tour for me.  I remember when OCPAC was constructed and I have seen several shows in the venue over the years. To be the hometown boy, playing in such an incredible venue … I’m so thrilled and nervous. I just want to make my friends and supporters proud. I hope they enjoy the show and my performance. I hope everyone has a good time with our show.  That’s what I always wish for—that people leave the theater feeling good.

With a show as thrilling and heartwarming as Beauty And The Beast, I can’t imagine anyone not leaving the theater with a smile on their face!

Here’s Chris’s Beauty And The Beast bio:
Christopher is overjoyed to be on tour with Beauty and the Beast.  He Christopher has worked with Nebraska Theatre Caravan, PCPA Theaterfest, Fullerton Civic Light Opera, Musical Theatre West, Sierra Rep, Laguna Playhouse, Santa Rosa Summer Rep and Theatre @ Boston Court. Favorite Regional Credits: Urinetown (Cladwell), A Funny Thing Happened…Forum (Pseudolus), Cabaret (M.C.), Jesus Christ Superstar (Herod), Seussical (Mayor of Who) and Little Shop of Horrors (Mushnik).  Thanks to everyone at NETworks and Bob Cline Casting.

Click here to purchase tickets for Beauty And The Beast.

Beauty And The Beast Photo by Joan Marcus

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