Erik Gratton fell in love with acting at Olathe North High School, Shawnee Mission’s Theater in the Park and in all sorts of Kansas City-area community theater in the 1990s.
Now that passion and talent — plus the fact that he’s 6-foot-3 inches tall — have helped propel him to the starring role in the new national tour of “Elf the Musical” that culminates this Christmas season at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Gratton plays the central role of Buddy, a human who mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts and winds up in the North Pole. His enormous size, towering over the other elves, and poor toy-making skills send him on a quest to find his true identity. The musical comedy is based on the movie that starred Will Ferrell.
“The thing that will stick with me forever is the idea that I have been hired to be happy for two hours a night,” Gratton said of the role, in a telephone interview. “My entire job is to be happy. It’s incredible.”
The show just wrapped up in Boston and next heads to New York, where it runs from Dec. 13-29.
Gratton, 41, said the show has been selling out, and audience reaction has been amazing.
He’s also thrilled with his fellow cast mates, which include George Wendt (who was in KC last year for a stint at New Theatre Restaurant) as Santa and Broadway alum Veronica J. Kuehn as his love interest Jovie.
Gratton grew up in Olathe and has a vivid memory of his first audition at age 15 at Olathe North High School.
“I auditioned for a role in a play called ‘The Voice of the Prairie,’” he recalled. “I was terrible and did not get it.”
But he had caught the acting bug.
“I was hooked from the moment I auditioned, even though I was no good and nervous and shaking,” he said.
Actually, he had his first taste for acting at age 14, although he did not realize it at the time. He was hired that summer of 1990 for a Renaissance Festival gig. He was a juggler and stood by the various stages, yelling and enticing people to see the shows. It was there that he met local theater teacher Robin Murphy, who was in charge of the festival’s apprenticeship program that year.
She became a mentor to him, and two years later Gratton had a small ensemble role in Shawnee Mission’s Theater in the Park 1992 production of “Camelot,” which Murphy directed. By then, Gratton was quite tall and his height came in handy.
“I think I had two lines in the middle of the crowd scenes,” he said. “I was there to be 6-foot-3 and swing a sword.”
Gratton went on to act in “My Fair Lady” and other plays at Olathe North, did a lot of community theater, and never looked back. He got scholarships to attend Emporia State and then to Wayne State University for his master’s degree, and he’s been a professional actor since.
His proud parents, Kevin and Mary Gratton of Olathe, will travel to New York next week to see him in “Elf,” although Kevin Gratton said they won’t get to spend much time with their son because he’ll be in two shows per day.
“I think he can do anything he puts his mind to,” says Kevin Gratton, a retired professor who still teaches a chemistry class at Johnson County Community College. His favorite memory was seeing his son play King Arthur in “Camelot” at Emporia State.
Erik Gratton’s first equity theater experience was in small roles with the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s performances of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Measure for Measure” in 1998. He considers Sidonie Garrett, the festival’s executive artistic director, another big inspiration.
Gratton specialized in comedy and classical performances until he moved to Seattle in 2012, where musicals dominate the theater scene. That’s when he got roles in musicals from “Shrek” to “Billy Elliot.”
He moved to Los Angeles in 2016 and saw the casting call there for “Elf.” He auditioned on his birthday, July 13, got the part, and rehearsals started in October.
He’s not sure what’s next but says a new acting challenge always comes along.
Meanwhile, he’s just soaking up this wonderful holiday experience, considering it “a dream come true.”