Ethan Le Phong has spent the last year or so playing Pepper in the National Tour of the international super-smash hit musical Mamma Mia!, but StageSceneLA readers will recall the Vietnamese-American triple threat from his Los Angeles roles in Mask, Pippin, and The Life, each of which was celebrated by an interview on these pages.  It’s been a while since we’ve had the chance to catch up with Ethan, during which time he starred as Lun Tha in The King And I at London’s Royal Albert Hall (opposite Maria Friedman and Daniel Dae Kim) and appeared in the all-star production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent at the Hollywood Bowl and at Sacramento Music Circus in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Ethan returns to the L.A./Orange County area on June 21 for a week of Mamma Mia! performances, making the upcoming leg of the tour an important one one for the actor-singer-dancer and his many Southland friends.  Here’s what Ethan had to say to us in his first StageSceneLA interview in two and a half years.


Hi Ethan.  Welcome back to Southern California!

I’m glad to be back.

Why don’t we start by filling in our readers with a bit of Ethan Le Phong: The Early Years. Where and when in your life did the acting bug bite, and what did you do when it did?

I can’t recall if it was my 5th or 6th grade class from Mozart Elementary School in Chicago, but we got invited to attend a few weeks at Disney Magnet School and had the opportunity to learn about the all the genres of the arts.  I had a taste of creating commercials, creating paintings, singing, and acting, all of it. By the end of our stay, we were to perform a show about Thomas Edison, where I, Asian boy, was playing Thomas Edison, dancing and singing about the man who created the light bulb.  When I got back to my school, I knew I wanted more, that was when I got invited to join the All-City Children Chorus of Chicago.   So every Saturday morning for about a year, I would meet up with over 100 inner-city school students and learn music. We were even invited to be the youth choir for Carl Orff’s Carmena Burana at Carnegie Hall which took me to NYC for the first time and I knew I was going back there! 

Ethan dead and alive in Les Misérables at the Hollywood Bowl

What would you say was your favorite production before joining the Mamma Mia! tour?

I think my favorite production has to be Richard Jay Alexander’s Les Miz at the Hollywood Bowl.  It’s one of all time favorite musicals and to be in that production with so many amazing well-known talents and getting to wear original Broadway costumes was a dream come true.  I got to play Montparnasse for three sold-out performances at the Hollywood Bowl.  You do know how many seats that place holds!

Ethan as Lun Tha in The King And I–Royal Albert Hall production

How about your favorite pre-Pepper role?

I think my favorite role has to be Lun-Tha in The King And I.  I have played it several times both here and over in the UK, but to perform this production at the Royal Albert Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was out of this world. It united me with some of my friends that I worked with when the show was at the London Palladium and learning from both Daniel Dae Kim of ABC’s Lost and West End Diva, Maria Friedman was a master class in itself.
What’s been the high spot of the tour so far?

I know this may be cheesy to say but it’s the audiences for me.  It’s amazing to get the reactions that we get every night. Mind you, we have had some that have been very reserved and considerate and we appreciate them and are very thankful that they enjoyed the show but the really rambunctious crowds are the fun ones.  When they are out there, it feels like we are giving them a rock concert!  I do remember the night when we found out that Judge Judy was in the audience. She wasn’t shy with her moves. She was up and dancing with everyone during the mega mix. That was pretty cool.

Why do you think Mamma Mia! has been such a phenomenal international success?

I think with the release of the movie, it gave the show a new demographic of fans.  It’s great when we see little kids in the audiences singing along to ABBA songs with their adult counterparts who were fans of the music way back in the ‘70s.  It’s a feel-good musical and who doesn’t like them? I’ve had people come up to me that have seen the show multiple times and tell us that “We Done Good!”

One of the regular features of your Facebook page is posting pictures of the scrumptious meals you enjoy while touring, and yet you look in better shape than ever. How do you keep that Ethan Le Phong body looking so good?

It takes a lot of training.  I’m at the gym almost every day to keep my body strong for what I have to do in the show.  When I’m home, I’m in dance classes.  I try my best to watch what I eat but sometimes, you just need that 4th meal of the day after a show. The ‘Food Porn or Eating My Way Through North America’ was something that I thought would be fun to keep track of while I’m on the road. I’m really amazed that be folks are keeping track with me and what’s being cooked in other places than their hometown. You know, before I was a part of Mamma Mia!, I went through a good year collecting unemployment so I didn’t have the privilege to eat like a king that I am able to do now so why not show off the meals you eat, I say!

Ethan in Rent at the Hollywood Bowl

You’ve got stops in San Diego and San Jose before your week in Costa Mesa, but your week at the Segerstrom Center is your closest to L.A., at least for the time being.  How do you feel about your upcoming week in the O.C. and being back so close to friends and family?

I was lucky enough to take a small break from Mamma Mia! last month to be a part of the 14th Annual Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa with the reading of Cloudlands so it will be nice to visit that area again with the tour. What’s great is that many of my friends will be able to come down from L.A. to see the show. Many of them have never seen the show so I’m pretty excited that our tour will mark their first experience with Mamma Mia!.  It will be a great treat to be back in South Cali performing. The last time I was on stage here was with Rent at the Hollywood Bowl that was directed by Neil Patrick Harris.

Is there any particular role you’d really like to sink your teeth into in the next few years?

I would really like to try my hands at Song from David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. That would be a great challenge. There’s such darkness and honesty in that play.  It would be something that I have never tried before and would be up for the challenge.

It seems that more and more young people are planning careers in theater, and specifically musical theater.  What’s your best advice to them?

You know, if it’s the only thing you think of when you wake up and when you go to bed, then I say go for it. It’s a really tough business we call entertainment but if you work really hard and believe in yourself, then anything can happen. I love my career and I am the first to say that I am always a student. You never stop learning.

Ethan singing for Layers Of Love with Sarah Glendening

I know that a lot of your time and energy is spent with a former costar and director of mine, Francis Aquino, with the non-profit organization Layers Of Love.  Briefly, what is Layers Of Love, and why does being part of it mean so much to you?

Layers Of Love ( has a very simple mission.  It is to provide joy and happiness for children that are afflicted with HIV/AIDS. We help celebrate their birthdays. We are here to let them know that they are not a statistic but that they are children and that they deserve to be carefree and joyous.  It’s because of my parents’ decision to leave Vietnam after the war that I’m able to enjoy a life where I can be and do anything I please and I had a very happy childhood.  That’s all I want to give back to these kids—a happy childhood.

Assuming you’ve thought about life “beyond the tour,” what would you like your next career step to be?

Who knows what great adventures I will have after Mamma Mia!.  For now, I am very happy with the tour. I just hope my next gig will continue to make me grow as an artist and that it still makes me happy.  If there’s a day I am jaded about my career, then it will be time for me to retire. 

It’s been far too long, Ethan, and who knows when the next chance will be, so I’m definitely looking forward to saying Hi at the stage door on Opening Night!

Can’t wait!

Click here to purchase tickets to Mamma Mia!

Credits: SMC’s JOSEPH (Benjamin); East West Player’s PIPPIN (Pippin); Hollywood Bowl’s LES MIS and RENT;  WWRY (original cast recording), Royal Albert Hall’s THE KING & I (Luntha); Naked Boys Singing-Movie; HBO’s Little Britain USA.

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