Brian Rhea, theater junkie, stands tall in ‘Hairspray’ as he embraces the beat

Years ago — many years ago — OK, decades ago — I saw Brian Rhea perform for the first time. The show was at the old Theatre 3. I remember thinking, he’s very tall. And while he didn’t totally seem comfortable in his skin performing in front of an audience, I could tell he loved it. I could also sense a budding actor — someone who loved what he was doing and was determined to keep at it.

I’m glad he did.

Pictured above: Steve Souza as Edna and Brian Rhea as Wilbur in ‘Hairspray.’ Photo: Good Company Players

With dozens of shows under his belt, lots of them spent building his craft in the ensemble or chorus, Rhea’s growth as both a comic and dramatic performer has been fun to track over the years. Now, just days after finishing up the run of “Mamma Mia” as a long-haired inhabitant of a Greek island, he’s moved to Baltimore to tackle one of his biggest roles to date in the Good Company Players production of “Hairspray.” He plays Wilbur Turnblad, father to the main character, Tracy, and an eternal optimist. I caught up with Rhea by phone and email for an interview.

Donald: You got your hair chopped today. How’d that go? Was it nice to say goodbye to those long “Mamma Mia” locks?

Brian: After not having it cut for almost four months, it felt great but also bittersweet. It meant the end of a long journey – 81 total performances of “Mamma Mia” between two productions (2018 & 2019).


Donald: What was it like being in one show while rehearsing for another? Did you ever just want a day off?

Brian: Doing back-to-back shows is just about getting into a rhythm. Both shows are different in style and music so it was easy to switch gears. I’m a theater junkie. I love rehearsals, so I don’t generally wish for days off — except for the time I stage managed four shows back to back. After the last show closed, I needed to recharge my brain for a couple of weeks.

Donald: You get to play Wilbur in “Hairspray,” who is one of the sweetest, gentlest characters I can think of. He’s also owner of the Har-De-Har Hut joke shop, which suggests his outlook on life. What have you learned about Wilbur since you started rehearsals?

Brian: He’s so different from both film versions. I love playing this Wilbur. He’s such a happy, positive person, which is where I believe Tracy gets her exuberant personality. He is completely in love with Edna (his wife, played by Steve Souza). He’s a dreamer who makes sure his family doesn’t give up on their dreams. And he doesn’t care what people say about him — he’s just himself. I could take lessons from him.

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Donald: Did you like magic and stuff like that as a kid?

Brian: I was an easy kid to entertain so any kind of performance kept my attention. Magic was cool but it was more the theatrics of it that I was fascinated by rather than the tricks themselves.

Good Company Players

Brian Rhea, left, as Wilbur, and Ashley Wilkinson, as Tracy, in ‘Hairspray.’

Donald: I hear from a reliable source (OK, so it was you) that you are partial to Whoopee cushions. What’s your best Whoopee story? Has anyone ever gotten you with one? Please set the scene and provide phonetic equivalents for the sound effects.

Brian: Yes, I love a good Whoopee cushion sound. I bought one once, filled it up, sat down a little too hard on it & popped it. I was super bummed. I never had anyone get me. They weren’t sly enough to fool me. But when it has that perfect FFFBBLPHPTBLBP sound, I turn into a giggling little kid again.

Donald: You’ve been on the local theater scene for a long time. I remember watching you at Theatre 3 way back then. You’re 45 now, and I’ve been impressed with how much you’ve grown over the years. At the start, you seemed a little shy. Was there a “breakthrough” role that gave you more confidence?

Brian: Thank you! I’m proud to admit to 25 years in the Fresno theater community. I was a very shy, very green 20 year old. But with each show, I learned something new & my confidence began to grow. It was a slow process & I’m still learning & trying to grow. I had always done comedies. In 2005 at Theatre 3, we did “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.” I played Edmund. It was the first serious drama I had ever done. It pushed me to look at character and text differently. It was a difficult role and a daunting task to do a 180 degree turn from everything I was comfortable doing. I found a new confidence to my stage self that I hope to one day get to explore again in some show.

Donald: Describe yourself in just three words.

Brian: Bookworm. Introverted. Odd.

Good Company Players

Janet Glaude is Motormouth Maybelle in ‘Hairspray.’

Donald: You are very tall. What is one tall-person secret that you can share with those of us who aren’t? (I promise I’ll keep it completely confidential. I don’t want you to get kicked out of the club.)

Brian: When talking with other tall people, tilt your chin up slightly. It puts your conversation out of earshot of shorter people.

Donald: You’ve been taking improv comedy workshops at Good Company. Quick: I’m handing you a hat, a candelabra, 14 sticks of gum and the backstory that you are a retired circus acrobat trying to get a seat at an exclusive restaurant. What do you do?

Brian: First I’d make you my scene partner as the maitre d’. I’d put on the hat, stick the gum on the ends of the candelabra & turn it upside using it as a cane with non-slip pads. Then we’d chat back and forth until Emily Pessano or Teddy Maldonado called “AND SCENE!!” The classes are a lot of fun. They teach you to not overthink and just commit to the choices you and your scene partner make. Be in the moment, listen and react!

Donald: “Hairspray” is a deeper show than many people realize. Can you talk about that?

Brian: The show is set in 1962, but the themes are extremely relevant today. People may think the show is just about a girl just wanting to integrate a local TV show. But there is so much more to this show. It’s about empowerment. Embracing who you are — race, age, weight, awkward, kooky, idealistic — is a very powerful thing. Tracy believes she can accomplish anything that she sets her mind to regardless of her size — and does. Tracy, Motormouth and Wilbur convince Edna that she’s beautiful because of her size. Wilbur doesn’t let Edna or Tracy give up on their dreams. Penny and Seaweed show you can’t help who you fall in love with. If we empower and champion each other to believe in ourselves, we can accomplish anything. That’s what I get from the show.

Donald: Anything else you’d like to say?

Brian: My favorite moment in the show is hearing Janet Glaude and the onstage emsemble sing “I Know Where I’ve Been.” When they sing, “There’s a struggle we have yet to win. Use that pride in hearts to lift us up,” I get a little emotional. Again it’s about empowering each other. Janet gives that song the power and conviction it needs to knock the audience out of their seats. Definitely a not-to-be missed moment.

Show info

‘Hairspray,’ continues through May 19, Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. A Good Company Players production. Tickets are $33-$62.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Margie Vogt

    This makes me so happy! Brian is one of our favorites, and now I’m even more excited to see the show! Thanks for the great interview, Donald.


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