It’s funny the things you remember from years ago. Other than a general feeling about the quality of Fresno Grand Opera’s 2006 production of “South Pacific” at the Saroyan Theatre, I don’t recall much about the show except for two concrete memories.
One is the comic chops of Joel C. Abels, now the artistic director of StageWorks Fresno, who stood out as funny man Luther Billis.
And the other is ensemble member Philip Bryan.
Even though the overall production was a little weak, I still remember Bryan for his intensity and energy on the stage. I have a snapshot memory of him hamming it up in one of his ensemble numbers as a dancing/singing Navy Seabee: a big, goofball smile that radiated all the way to the back wall of the balcony.
Bryan remembers certain things about that show, too. He recalls thinking at the time: Someday I’ll get on a tour and come back to Fresno to perform on this stage.
He’s set to fulfill that goal as an ensemble member and in-cast understudy for the role of Lancelot in the national tour of “Camelot,” which stops at the Saroyan Tuesday, Jan. 13, for a two-night run.
“It’s a show that I’m very proud to be part of,” he says.
“Camelot,” starring the dream cast of Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet, was a huge Broadway hit in the early 1960s. It was followed by the 1967 movie starring Burton and Vanessa Redgrave.
This new national tour tries for an updated vibe.
“Everyone knows ‘Camelot,’ ” Bryan says in a phone interview. “It’s a classic. We wanted to give a contemporary, ‘Game of Thrones’ feel to it.”
In the song “The Lusty Month of May,” for example, think young and primal — a wild Friday-night party. The show is about love, lust and friendship, and the cast plays it up.
For Bryan, it will be a sweet homecoming.
The Bullard High School graduate played a lot of sports in high school, and he didn’t really know what he wanted to do in terms of a career.
His first year in college he decided to take a class in every subject he was interested in. One of them was an acting class, and he started auditioning for local roles. He appeared in productions at Children’s Musical Theaterworks, Fresno City College and Good Company Players, among others.
When he took a Summer Arts class at Fresno State with Jeff Perry, co-founder of the venerated Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, it turned out to be a pivotal moment.
“Jeff Perry was a big influence on me,” he says. “That class pretty much solidified what I wanted to accomplish.”
When Bryan sets out to do something, he goes full speed ahead. In 2007, he decided Fresno needed a new theater company, and Aithon Theatre Company was born. Bryan didn’t think small for his first production, Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” which opened at the 500-seat Fresno Memorial Auditorium. It was followed that season by “True West” and “The Last Five Years.”
Some saw Bryan as a visionary for starting a new company. Others thought he was in over his head.
But for him, it was well worth the effort.
“A lot of people saw it as gutsy, and I just saw it as a way to share something that I loved,” he says.
In 2008, Bryan enrolled at the American Music and Dramatic Academy in New York, a two-year performing-arts conservatory. From there it’s been a steady variety of roles. His first regional production was as King Herod in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Ind. He went on to perform for Celebrity Cruises.
He auditioned for “Camelot” last March, and the tour started in September. After a holiday break, it started up again Jan. 5 in Boise.
Bryan knows what he wants to do when he gets to Fresno.
When he was in the 2006 Good Company Players production of “CATS,” the cast used to go afterwards to sing karoke at AMF Sierra Lanes bowling alley on Blackstone Avenue. One night they bumped into members of the national tour of “Mamma Mia,” which was in town, and it made an impression on Bryan.
“That’s exactly what I’ll do when I come to Fresno is look for the first karaoke night,” he says with a laugh.