After the conclusion of the opening-night performance of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical,” Ron Lackey was a one-man receiving line.
Lackey, still in full makeup and costume as Sam the Snowman, stood at the edge of the Coterie stage, shaking hands with adult viewers and kids as they streamed toward the exit and graciously fielding compliments.
“You were wonderful,” a woman said.
“Thank you,” a beaming Lackey replied.
The costume was the wild conception of designer Georgianna Londre Buchanan, who concocted an outfit that enclosed Lackey from the waist down in a giant white ball. In it he can move onstage only by taking tiny steps, which creates the illusion that he’s gliding.
It enhances Lackey’s stage presence, which is considerable. His talents are all the more remarkable when you learn that he didn’t start singing until he was 28 and that his first paid acting gig was a little more than 18 months ago.
But this is Lackey’s third show for the Coterie. He has made a strong impression each time — first in “Bud, Not Buddy” and later in “Rosa Parks” — and viewers who saw Spinning Tree Theatre’s classy production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” last year will remember Lackey as a member of an exceptional ensemble.
Jeff Church, the Coterie’s artistic director, persuaded Lackey to give acting a shot. Church, who first saw Lackey in one of Musical Theater Heritage’s “Musical Monday” concerts, figured anyone with his stage presence might be a natural.
Church invited him to audition for a “Bud, Not Buddy.” Lackey would play a 1930s bandleader, though the show was not a musical.
“I never sang a note in that,” Lackey said recently in a Coterie rehearsal room. “The way Jeff Church discovered me, he saw me in Musical Monday upstairs. I had just gotten through singing ‘Muddy Waters’ from ‘Big River’ and as soon as I got off stage, Jeff was waiting in the wings.”
Church pitched him and invited him to audition. But the whole idea made Lackey nervous.
“I sent him an email late that evening, saying, ‘I think this is a mistake, you can’t want me to act,’” Lackey said. “But Jeff was very gentle. I got up that morning and drove over here and, I tell you, I almost pulled out of the garage and went home.”
Fortunately, he decided to bite the bullet and go through with it. When he arrived at the theater he found himself among professional actors, including some who had been performing on Kansas City stages for decades.
“They all had these extensive resumes,” he said. “I literally had nothing.”
Church said when he first saw Lackey that night at the Musical Monday show, he had no idea he wasn’t an actor.
“I do so love and admire him,” Church said. “I think he’s had a lot of things he’s pursued, from ministry to his own band. I thought it was worth it to call him in have him audition. I had a friend, director Scot Copeland, in to direct that play. And both Scot and I really loved Ron and his presence. … I figured anyone who stands at a pulpit and delivers a message had the basic talent.”
Lackey, 44, is a native of North Carolina and has lived in the Kansas City area since 1980. His introduction to live performance was church music, and he became a prodigious self-taught musician. He plays piano, guitar and drums.
For five years he was a minister at a church in Overland Park. At one point he put out a gospel CD and toured Kansas. His band, 2 Proud 2 Beg, specializes in Motown and R&B and performs an average of once a month. They often play private gigs, including weddings and corporate events, but also make public appearances at the Levee and Kelly’s Westport Inn, among other venues.
Lackey lives in Overland Park with his wife and four kids.
But back to the acting thing. It never would have occurred to Lackey to audition to play Sam the Snowman. Again, it began with a call from Jeff Church.
“Well, my life has been full of opportunities to be the first black man to do something,” Lackey said.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is based on a 1960s stop-action animated TV movie in which Sam was voiced by Burl Ives. It just so happened that Lackey had a copy of the movie. He enjoyed it so much that sometimes he watched it for himself without the kids.
“So I popped in the DVD,” Lackey said. “He (Ives) sings all these great songs in the movie. So I went to the audition and I was the last person to audition that day. There were so many guys there. I mean, who looks at Burl Ives and thinks of me?”
Observers would agree that Lackey is relaxed onstage and shows a lot of poise. And he earns a lot of goodwill from the audience because of the positive vibes he generates. So far, he has been happy with the work.
“I try not to look at what other people are doing, but try to assess whether or not I can do it well,” he said. “Acting is one of those things people don’t understand. … If you live in Kansas City and tell someone you’re an actor, they’re like, ‘Oh, is that something you do for fun?’ I think it’s a talent and skill that has to be developed.
“I think I had some ability, but it was work. I think maybe they have this concept that we’re just kind of sitting around reading lines. I had a costume fitting for Sam and that was a 30-minute workout. I see the directors and stage managers and how hard they work. It’s not as easy as people think. That just makes me respect it a lot more.”
Andy Parkhurst, co-founder of Spinning Tree Theatre, co-directed “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with Michael Grayman and remembers being impressed with Lacky as soon as he walked in to audition.
The show is a revue of songs written or recorded by Fats Waller and requires an ensemble of two men and two women.
“He was not at our general auditions,” Parkhurst recalled. “Our question was how are we gonna find a gentleman who fits the criteria, because it’s kind of the Fats Waller track. We wanted someone who could could sing well and we had such a great ensemble already selected that we didn’t want a weak link.”
Parkhurst recalled that Lackey actually auditioned at his and Grayman’s house.
“We have a piano here and (musical director) Angie Benson was here,” Parkhurst said. “We had never met him and had never seen him sing before. He just blew the roof off our little Waldo bungalow.”
When they offered Lackey the role, he seemed surprised.
“That’s part of the charm,” Parkhurst said.
The idea of choreography made Lackey nervous because he had never done it before, Parkhurst recalled. And during the staging of “Honeysuckle Rose,” Parkhurst and Grayman wanted him to kiss actress Eboni Fondren on the cheek. That made him nervous, too.
“He said he didn’t feel good about that because he didn’t want his wife to feel bad about it,” Parkhurst said. “That’s how green he was. He’s a man of faith and didn’t want to be portrayed in a light that took away from that.
“So we changed the staging for her to kiss him. He was like, ‘OK, I’ll try that.’ He was very courteous and very respectful. … He’s just a big teddy bear. He’s adorable. He’s as open-hearted as he is talented. The openness of that heart and that soul that the audience sees onstage is exactly the experience we all had during the (rehearsal) process.”
Lackey said there was virtually no break between the conclusion of the run of “Rosa Parks,” which opened the Coterie’s season, and the beginning of rehearsals for “Rudolph,” which runs through early January. For the next six weeks, Lackey and his fellow actors will essentially be living at the Coterie because “Rudolph” is performed twice a day for most of its run.
“I kept telling my wife, ‘Remind me not to do back-to-back shows,’” he said. “If it wasn’t for this opportunity, I don’t know that I’ll ever do another back-to-back show. But I could not pass up an opportunity to play Sam.”
Church said he wasn’t sure Lackey would play Sam before “Rudolph” auditions. Now he can’t picture anyone else doing it.
“I sort of short-listed him, but I didn’t tell Ron that,” Church said. “There were some actors in that age range, and we thought other people could sing ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ in auditions.
“But in my mind’s eye I could really see Ron. You’re seeing the whole thing through that snowman’s eyes, but he also sings key numbers. I just think you’ve got to have a home-run hitter. We know those songs so well, you really can’t mess with them.”