Thanks to the dedicated actors of Chicago, catching an understudy is rare, especially in major roles. But occasionally circumstances require that an understudy go on. As tribute to the actors who master the difficult art of juggling artistic preparedness with uncertainty, here’s our list of memorable understudy performances we happened to catch. And as a bonus, at the end of the list is an account of an amazing performance by an actress who went on despite a fractured foot!
Ironic note about photos: Understudies rarely appear in production photos, so this list of understudy performances is illustrated with images of actors we didn’t see, rather than the understudies we’re applauding.
(in chronological order)
The Island by Athol Fugard, Remy Bumppo in 2010: We had three reasons to look forward to this production with great anticipation: playwright Athol Fugard, director James Bohnen, and the cast consisting of Kamal Angelo Bolden (as Winston) and LaShawn Banks (as John). But the programs we received as we entered the theatre had an insert: “Performing tonight in the role of Winston is Greg Williams“—not news we wanted to hear. Interestingly, the cast list in the program had included an understudy for John, but none for Winston. Nevertheless, our interest was piqued when we read the short bio for Greg, noting that he was a recent graduate of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign acting program. (We later discovered that we had seen him in several student productions, such as Fugitive Kind by Tennessee Williams.) At Remy Bumppo, he did a remarkable job of a challenging role, receiving not only enthusiastic applause from the audience at the end of the show, but also from fellow actor LaShawn Banks.
Ragtime by Flaherty and Ahrens, Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace in 2010: This revelatory production, directed by Rachel Rockwell, featured Quentin Earl Darrington in the lead role as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., which he had played on Broadway just a few months earlier. But for the performance we saw, Darrington was unable to reach the theater in time for curtain, so understudy James Earl Jones II went on as Coalhouse Walker on short notice. Rather than a disappointment, this was a treat for us as we had followed James’s career since his student days at U of Illinois. As usual, he came through in magnificent form, musically and dramatically, and nailed the role. Interesting note: This was not the only time that James understudied and performed an extremely demanding role. In 2016, he understudied the one-hander Satchmo at the Waldorf at Court Theatre and performed on several occasions.
The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan, Marriott Theatre in 2012: Just before the show was to begin, a cast member came on stage to explain that Pirate King Kevin Earley had been invited to perform at that evening’s Drama Desk Awards ceremony, so (with encouragement and support from his colleagues in the show), Mr. Earley would be in New York rather than at Marriott that day. But there was a complication—this being late in the run, his understudy had left the show a few days earlier to play a lead role at another Chicago-area theatre. So a member of the ensemble, Brandon Springman, would play the Pirate King at this performance. We had mixed feelings: disappointed at not seeing Kevin Earley, but wanting to be supportive of the person plucked from the ensemble. The disappointment was short-lived, because Brandon did such a spectacular job that we quickly forgot he was standing in for someone else. At the end of the show, the audience expressed its appreciation with sustained enthusiastic applause for his fantastic performance.
All Our Tragic by Sean Graney, The Hypocrites remount in 2015: Under the best of circumstances, being an understudy is fraught with uncertainty and the challenge of minimal rehearsal time before joining a cast that has bonded with the person you’re replacing. But imagine assuming a major role in a 12-hour play, with massive amounts of dialog and blocking to learn, on short notice without the head start of being an understudy! That’s the situation described by adapter/director Sean Graney on the Hypocrites web site in July 2015: “We are about to enter our 5th week of performances and this weekend will be very special. Tommy Rapley will be taking on the roles of Prometheus, Eteokles, Rhesus and Orestes. My good friend, the amazingly talented Geoff Button, suffered an injury from which he is healing well, but he is unable to finish the run of All Our Tragic. I cannot think of a better performer than Tommy to assume these roles.” Somehow, with only a week to learn the dialog and without participating in a full run-through of the play prior to his “opening night,” Tommy did a phenomenal job. His was not just a feat of memorization, but a distinguished acting tour de force. He also graciously sang the praises of the rest of the cast for their help in welcoming and supporting him.
Last Train to Nibroc by Arlene Hutton, Haven Theatre in 2015: We were really eager to see this two-hander that reunited director Jason Gerace with two of the actors he had worked with in Strawdog’s wonderful adaptation of Great Expectations—Amanda Drinkall and Mike Tepeli. These are two of our favorite actors, and reviewers had raved about both performers. In addition, we have a soft spot for Amanda, having enjoyed her work since she was a student at U of Illinois. But when we arrived at the theatre, we found out that not one, but two understudies would be going on, much to our disappointment. We needn’t have worried, because Olivia Crary and Caleb Fullen did such a fabulous job that we had trouble imagining anyone else in the roles. And we were delighted when Amanda won the Jeff Award for Actress in a Principal Role for Last Train to Nibroc!
The Producers by Mel Brooks, NightBlue in 2015: In their review of this excellent (despite low budget) production, Newcity called Ryan Stajmiger’s Leo “a sparkplug of positive energy each time he graces the stage.” We had really enjoyed Ryan’s work (along with the rest of the cast) in Nightblue’s hilarious 2013 production of Spamalot, so we’d been looking forward to seeing him as Leo, but instead we happened to catch understudy Casey Hayes in this crucial role. It turns out he was born to play Leo, and with a nod to the other actors and director David E. Walters, he was fully in sync with the rest of the cast. Understudying a lead comedic role is particularly challenging because the comic timing has to be spot on, but Casey Hayes pulled it off to perfection.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, produced by The Hypocrites in 2016: Less than two weeks before opening night, the Hypocrites announced that Kate Buddeke would take over the role of Amanda in Hans Fleischmann’s re-envisioned The Glass Menagerie (when the actress originally scheduled to play the role had to step down for health reasons). Williams’ description of Amanda in the script summed up what an immensely difficult role this is, even with months of preparation: “AMANDA WINGFIELD the mother. A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place. Her characterization must be carefully created, not copied from type. She is not paranoiac, but her life is paranoia. There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at. Certainly she has endurance and a kind of heroism, and though her foolishness makes her unwittingly cruel at times, there is tenderness in her slight person.” Kate Buddeke displayed her own heroism in a remarkable opening night performance. We saw the show again a month later, and her performance had deepened into a definitive portrayal of this iconic role.
Prowess by Ike Holter at Jackalope Theatre in 2016: Ike Holter writes dialog that’s a delight to the ear but a beast to learn. In Prowess, he combined his trademark overlapping rapid-fire dialog with grueling fight scenes that accounted for fully a third of the show’s running time (brilliantly and imaginatively choreographed by Ryan Bourque). So when Andrew Goetten replaced the injured Andrew Burden Swanson (fittingly playing a character named Andy), he faced a herculean task. Not only did he have to learn Ike Holter dialog and a career’s worth of fight choreography, but he had less than a week to do it. We saw the show in previews on a Thursday, after Andrew had gotten the call the previous Saturday, and were amazed by his performance. And in typical Chicago theatre style, the other cast members were incredibly supportive and proud of Andrew’s accomplishment. Director Marti Lyons not only chose the cast and replacement well, but she masterfully orchestrated the proceedings in a world premiere play where pacing, staging, and ensemble cohesiveness were pivotal. Interesting note: Before Prowess, we had seen Andrew Goetten in several shows, but one that was 180 degrees from Prowess was the 2010 Writers Theatre production of She Loves Me, with Jessie Mueller in her last Chicago role before heading to Broadway. Andrew is an actor with serious range!
The Producers by Mel Brooks at the Mercury Theatre in 2016: In a production with Matt Crowle playing an absolutely definitive Leo, and Bill Larkin (Max) and Allison Sill (Ulla) at the top of their games, the supporting cast had garnered their share of great reviews as well. Chris Jones in his Chicago Trib review had referred to “Sawyer Smith‘s deliciously brittle Carmen Ghia.” Instead of catching that gem at the performance we attended, we instead saw Sawyer step up as understudy to play Roger DeBris. From the instant he set foot on stage (in the ball gown reminiscent of the Chrysler Building), he owned the role—acting, singing, dancing, and anchoring key scenes in the “Springtime for Hitler” segment. What a treat!
The Audience by Peter Morgan at TimeLine Theatre in 2017: Understudying Janet Ulrich Brooks must be a singularly tough gig, because she’s one of the most beloved actresses in Chicago. In The Audience, she played Queen Elizabeth II in a fascinating play imagining what transpired in her one-on-one weekly meetings with the current Prime Minister throughout her 60+-year reign. The task of going on for Janet, 15 weeks into the run, fell to understudy Caron Buinis, another actress we greatly admire. We were extremely lucky to see Janet early in the run, and Caron subsequently when we booked a second viewing to catch casting changes necessitated by the extension of the popular show (such as Steve Pickering playing Winston Churchill and others). In fact, all but one of the seven cast members (the fabulous Mark Ulrich) was a different actor than we had seen previously. Thanks to Caron’s luminous performance, the remarkable ensemble cast, and director Nick Bowling’s genius at sustaining excellence throughout the long run and cast turnover, we would be hard pressed to name our favorite performance—a remarkable statement considering the caliber of the original!
Other shows where we caught a remarkable understudy performance: Tara Sisson in New Colony’s 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, included in our list of favorite comedies; Carin Silkaitis in Theater Wit’s Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, also in our list of favorite comedies; Randy Ganne in the Stratford Festival’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which made our list of favorite productions of Sondheim musicals; Kate Hennig in the Shaw Festival’s Gypsy, also in our Sondheim musicals list
Most memorable performance when we expected to see an understudy but didn’t: Portraying a rapidly declining Judy Garland in The End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter is a physically and emotionally grueling undertaking even under the best of circumstances. In Porchlight Music Theatre’s 2016 production, Angela Ingersoll sustained a foot fracture during a show midway through the run. She not only finished that performance, but with the aid of an Aircast and cane, completed the run. We saw the show about a week after the injury, and found Ingersoll’s performance to be not only heroic but heartrending and unforgettable.