Los Angeles’s very own Benjamin Perez returns to his home turf as Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts presents the newest “new Gershwin musical” Nice Work If You Can Get It. Having seen and loved Benjamin’s work in numerous local productions, I was delighted to catch up with the actor I first discovered in 2007 playing Chicano hero Ruben Salazar.
Hi Benjamin. As a fellow native Angelino, I’m excited to welcome you back to Southern California for Nice Work If You Can Get It’s final stop, at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts! I’m sure you must be excited to be back in Southern California for the last leg of the tour, right?
Thank you, Steven! I am beyond excited to return to my native Southern California for our final week of the National Tour. I have seen many shows at the Segerstrom, and it’s so exciting to bring this “new” Gershwin musical to my family, friends and theater lovers here in SoCal! We have been doing a lot of Northeastern engagements, sometimes trudging through freezing wind and snow to get from the hotel to the theater. I myself, prefer the sunshine, freeways and palm trees!
Growing up in Los Angeles, when and how did the acting bug first bite?
Well, my musical education began at Los Altos High School, where I was in the Men’s Choir, Concert Choir and Production Choir (basically “Glee”). Then I attended Citrus College, and performed and toured with the Citrus Singers for three years. That accelerated program at one of our finest local community colleges taught me so much about discipline, professionalism and delivering a consistent performance. We had to do a Christmas show, numerous “casual” shows at hotels, luncheons and conventions, a major musical, and a year‐end Pop Show. And then we traveled to Hawaii or Europe for several weeks during the summer! It was a lot of hard work, and a lot of music and dancing to learn, but we were young and full of energy, and just “did it”! My Maestro, Mr. Ben Bollinger was a strict task‐master, but I appreciate now the expectation of excellence that he impressed upon every student.
Can you talk a bit about your first professional gig as a performer?
Well, after studying at Los Altos High and Citrus College, I mainly did regional theater here in Los Angeles. I worked at major Civic Light Operas like, San Gabriel, Redondo Beach, Fullerton, Downey, and La Mirada. Then in 1995, I got hired to be a lead singer for Princess Cruise Lines. I guess you would call that my first “professional” gig. I was getting paid a good wage, working on ship three nights a week, and traveling to the Caribbean and Alaska! I had a lot of material to learn, but the travel and the income was very satisfying. I stayed working for that company for 16 years. I got to sing every kind of music: Broadway, Motown, Spanish, Pop, Rock, Country, the shows were fun and very varied. So, I got to wear a lot of gaudy costumes, sing a lot of material I probably never would have been hired to do on land, and got paid to sit on the beach and drink Mai‐Tais. I guess you can understand why I stayed there for sixteen years!
You’ve been touring the U.S. since September in what must have been a whirlwind seven‐month tour of thirty cities with Nice Work. How whirlwind has it been to play so many stops in such a short time,?
Touring is so funny. Sometimes we sit down in a city for a week or two, other cities are only one night. I really enjoy “sitting down” in a city, because I can unpack my luggage. It can be exhausting for someone of “my age” to travel so much on buses and planes going from city to city, but knowing that I am bringing classic Gershwin music in a “new frame” to audiences is exciting.
What’s been your favorite city so far?
Every theater and audience is different, and this show is so funny and lovely, we have had such an amazing response to it. My favorite city so far has been Dallas, where we opened. My father was born in El Paso, Texas, and his 88-year-old sister, my aunt Consuelo, and her 92-year-old husband, my uncle Armando, live near Dallas in Euless. I was so blessed to get to spend time with them. And getting to do this show for two weeks at the Fair Grounds in an enormous theater, and an exceptional Dallas Summer Musical Guild, that treated us like we were their family, was such a treat. That, and all the great barbecue and Mexican food in Texas!
Nice Work If You Can Get It follows in the footsteps of Crazy For You (Broadway’s original “New Gershwin Musical”) as a veritable Gershwin Songbook. Were you a Gershwin fan before doing this show, and what makes Gershwin’s music and lyrics great?
Oh, absolutely a Gershwin fan. One of my favorite albums is Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing Gershwin tunes. The Gershwins were writing tunes and shows in the Golden Age, with Berlin, Kern, and so many others. Their songs stand the test of time because of their universal messages about love, loss, and a humorous and irreverent look at human nature. They can also be re‐interpreted as jazz standards. They say there are “melody” people and “lyric” people. Well, I can’t hum a lyric. I am definitely a melody person. And Gershwin melodies stick to you long after you leave the theater. There are many famous tunes in our show: “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Someone To Watch Over Me,” “But Not For Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “s’Wonderful.” and the title tune. But some of my favorites are ones you may not be familiar with. “Delishious,” “Do, Do, Do,” and “Will You Remember Me” are lovely and just as memorable. There are also some really amazing snippets from “Rhapsody In Blue” and many other instrumental compositions from his catalogue.
Can you talk a bit about your character Senator Max Evergreen and how he figures into Nice Work’s storyline?
Here is the description of my character from Tony‐winning writer Joe DiPietro’s book: “Senator Max Evergreen. A pompous, moralistic, conservative politician. Not a lot of fun at parties.” So I am trying to be as dull as possible. Max is part of the “Trio of Morality,” which includes my character; my sister, Duchess Estonia Dulworth, (the founder of the Society of Dry Women) and Long Island Police Chief Bartholomew Berry, the “Top Cop.” The story is set in 1927, during Prohibition, so we don’t stand for any “shenanigans,” But, like in any musical comedy, the uppity people all get their comeuppance. With my silver wig, gray wool suits and small round glasses, I resemble Joe Kennedy, but Max is Republican all the way! There is a lot of class and political humor written into the script, that skewers both sides.
How do audiences respond to Max?
Audiences have really responded well to Max’s political agenda, and how slippery a Senator can be about where he stands depending which way the wind is blowing. I have given him a very stern air and a disapproving face, which I have found takes a lot of energy to maintain. My only regret is that Max is a non‐singing role! He needs a song to tell people just how judgmental, pompous and conservative he really is. I guess George and Ira didn’t write a song called “Bummertime,” “I Got No Rhythm,” or “Nobody Loves Me.”
As a Hispanic actor, how much does it mean to you that the part of Senator Evergreen wasn’t specifically written for a Latino? What makes playing Max fun?
I am so thrilled that I am a Latino actor who was cast in the part of a Caucasian Conservative Senator! I am grateful to Kathleen Marshall and the casting people for not seeing my last name or my skin color, but my abilities as an actor. I am actually the 3rd person to be cast as Max Evergreen. The original Broadway actor, Terry Beaver, was followed by another actor, John Schuck, who you might know as the sidekick on the Rock Hudson TV show McMillan & Wife or as Daddy Warbucks in Annie. It’s wonderful that I can play another character that is very different to the ones I am normally cast in. I actually struggled quite a bit with the character in rehearsals in New York. I didn’t quite get the voice, body language or essence of the character. But, once we started tech, I got into that silver wig, gray wool suit and those little round glasses, the Senator just kind of came out. It is actually really fun to be the “Ricky Ricardo” so that all the “Lucys” can spin wildly around you. There is a special challenge in remaining still while the other characters act silly. He is really fun to play because I gave him a furrowed brow and a duck mouth. It is so against my nature as an actor and a person, but he is so unlike any character I have played before, I am happy and grateful for the challenge. New tool in my belt!
You’ve also gotten to play a number of iconic (or iconic‐adjacent) Latino roles—Magaldi in Evita, Kevin Rosario in In The Heights, and (the very first time I saw you onstage in September of 2007) as Mexican‐American journalist Ruben Salazar in Cesar And Ruben. Any particular favorite among them?
Oh, Steven, I have loved playing Latino characters, I just wish that there were more of them and more positive aspects to them. Magaldi is a bit of a caricature, but I am ready to play Peron now. I think that is on my “bucket list.” The roles of Ruben Salazar in Cesar And Ruben and Kevin in In The Heights are so special because neither one of them carries a gun, or a knife, or is in a gang. Just normal, average, proud Latinos trying their best to reach for the American Dream. My father Moe, passed away in 2008. I was so happy that he got to see me play Ruben in Cesar And Ruben in 2007, but so sad that he didn’t get to see me play Kevin in In The Heights. Every moment of that performance I dedicated to him. He WAS Kevin Rosario. A hard‐working Latino father who sacrificed his own dreams so that his children could pursue their passions. Every night, singing “Alabanza,” I thought of my dear Daddy, who gave me Life, a chance to do what I love, and his own unique silent support of me as a person, an artist and a son. I felt my daddy at every show of In The Heights.
I imagine that In The Heights (which Segerstrom audiences got to see in 2010 with your Cesar And Ruben costar Daniel Bolero as Kevin) holds a special place in your heart. Can you talk about this musical means so much for you?
Oh, Steven, In The Heights absolutely changed my life. I was growing very unhappy with the cruise industry in 2010 and 2011, but was still happy with the income and the freedom that it afforded me. But I knew in my heart that something was missing. I left my last ship contract on July 23, 2011, two days later I was auditioning for the 2nd National Tour, and eleven days later I was offered the role of Kevin in In The Heights. A month later, I am working in NYC with the director, the choreographer and the music director who created the show! I had to pinch myself every day that this was really happening. I felt so blessed, and knew that I was at the right place at the right time. The role fit like a glove, and I played it four more times after the tour was over, twice in New York state, and twice in the L.A. area; Boyle Heights and at Cabrillo Music Theater. I feel so honored and blessed to play Kevin, and am so grateful to Lin‐Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes for creating a dignified, caring, and honorable character for me to play.
And I was fortunate to get to see you play Kevin in those two L.A. area engagements! How are you responding to having arrived at the last stop in the Nice Work If You Can Get It tour?
The tour has been another “feather in my cap” and I will actually miss having a theater to go to every night, my “wig time” with my dear friend, Jenn Chin, and my fabulous “sister”, Stephanie Harter Gilmore, my “daughter” Rachael Scarr, and my “paramour” Barbara Weetman. They have been such a great support system in what is sometimes a stressful and difficult creative process. I also want to give props to the orchestra of our show. They are an extraordinary group of human beings and musicians, and I am grateful for their support and friendship.
What’s up next for you, and how would you like to see your career develop over say the next five years?
I am actually looking forward to taking some film and TV classes here in L.A. As much as I love the theater, it is sadly not a way to make a living. I wish that stage actors were paid ten times what they make. The amount of dedication, hard work and persistence that most of them display is astonishing. I will always love the theater and it’s energy and chutzpah. But I feel like I am ready to graduate to more serious film and TV roles. So that I can be paid well, and still support a theatrical career existence.
It’s been a pleasure catching up with you!
Thank you for your questions and your interest in my creative journey, Steven. I am so proud to call you a friend and am so happy for your passion for the theatrical arts and support of the Latino community. You are a jewel in the Southern California Arts Scene, and a valuable supporter of theater in a “movie, television and commercial” town. WEPA, ALABANZA, AND NO ME DIGA!!!
Thank you, Benjamin! I can’t wait to see you on Opening Night!
Nice Work If You Can Get It plays at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. March 17-22. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30. Saturday at 2:00 and 7:30. Sunday at 1:00 and 6:30. Reservations: 714 556-2787
Click here to purchase tickets.
Benjamin’s Nice Work If You Can Get It bio:
BENJAMIN PEREZ (Senator Max Evergreen). In The Heights 2nd national and Westchester B’Way Theater. Mexican Hayride Lion Theater, NYC. Regional: Evita, Annie, Cesar and Ruben. Guest Entertainer for Princess Cruises. Thrilled to be on the 1st national of Nice Work! Thank you to my family, friends & angels for your support. Special thanks to Mom, Priscilla & James.