With a notable starring role as the villain in Golden Chain’s ‘Drive-In Melodrama,’ Lyric Gianni follows his own original path
Lyric Gianni first came to my attention as an ensemble member in Good Company Players’ “Newsies” and then “Something Rotten!” He’s one of those performers who can’t help but stand out. It’s as if a special electrical current is running through him — of enthusiasm, of energy, of total dedication to the role — that adds extra illumination to his presence. He lights up the stage.
Pictured above: Lyric Gianni channels his inner villain in ‘Drive-In Melodrama.’ Photo: Steve Montalto, Golden Chain Theatre
That charisma carries over even to the silliest of roles, which is what Gianni plays in the Golden Chain Theatre’s “Drive-In Melodrama.” (It continues on an outdoor stage in the theater’s parking lot through Sunday, Aug. 1, in Oakhurst.) He plays the swashbuckling villain, Cutworthy, and he does all the dastardly things you’d expect from such a character: he hisses at the hero, seduces the heroine, menaces the audience and twirls his pencil-thin mustache. He gives the show its deliciously mean, over-the-top comic heart.
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For most of his theatrical career, Gianni played women on stage, reflecting what he calls his “feminine history.” After a journey of discovering and shaping his own gender identity, he started playing male characters in those two Good Company shows mentioned above, reflecting his hope of moving beyond that history. Now he continues that trend with Cutworthy, but on his own terms.
I talked with him about his personal journey, the drive-in experience, the importance of melodrama — and more.
Q: One of the reasons I was so taken with this summer’s melodrama is because it was such a novel experience. I have never watched a play in a drive-in. What has it been like performing to a bunch of cars and trucks? Can you see through the windshields? How do you feel about chirping horns?
A: It’s definitely novel, as you said! It took a while for us to get used to it, because you can only hear the reactions of the folks who have their lawn chairs sitting outside their vehicles. It’s a highly participatory genre, that’s why people love it! Thankfully, we haven’t had anyone blasting their car horns at us. Our crowds have been polite enough to egg on the actors while not stopping scenes or throwing off our focus.
Q: I also really liked how the company doesn’t try to hide the backstage part of the show from the audience. At the performance I attended, an actor’s mic was malfunctioning, and when she walked off stage, a sound person helped fix it in full view. Was this openness sort of a “meta” conceptual directing choice?
A: We decided toward the beginning of this process that we would embrace any real tech flubs or difficulties as a part of the show, it keeps things interesting and makes the show different every night! It is quite improvisational, in a way. When we decided to build a stage in the parking lot, we knew we weren’t going to be able to hide everything, so why not allow the audience to see the inner workings and actors out of character? It could help cement the idea that it’s a show within a show.
Q: You play the villain, Cutworthy. I noted in my review of the show: “Gianni’s accent and vocal delivery are distinctive — and weird, and, frankly, kind of mesmerizing; it’s like Katharine Hepburn meeting half a gulp of helium.” OK, I admit it, I am far too enamored of that line and just wanted the chance to repeat it. But, to make this a legitimate question, how did you arrive at the choices you made for this character?
A: My biggest inspiration was that classic cartoon villain you see in your head when someone says “Melodrama.” I guess what we ended up with was a very nasally, exaggerated trans-continental accent. Although, I think Katharine Hepburn would be very cross with you for your comparison! It was difficult to decide on a character style at first, because there are so many things a character can be when there isn’t a strict outline. He’s a bad man, and he’s a magician- you could do anything with that. During the first week or so, I read the lines quite differently. It wasn’t until I saw where everyone else was settling in with their characters that I realized he needed to be a lot bigger.
Q: Melodrama is an important part of the Golden Chain Theatre legacy. The one you’re performing, in fact, was originally written for the company years ago. Why is it important to Oakhurst?
A: This theater was founded for melodrama and historical theater from the 19th century. There’s a lot of sentimental significance in that. The entire area was Gold Rush territory, and preserving the local history is important to both new and older residents. Melodrama kind of encapsulates the sense of humor and culture of the time period that the towns were founded (1800’s), so it’s a part of the experience for those tourists who are coming to learn about California’s history. We’ve been doing melodrama at GCT for 54 consecutive years. We couldn’t let the pandemic interrupt that long-term legacy, and although we have added other genres to our season, “The Melodrama” is something that we will continue to honor.
Related story: Review: GOLDEN CHAIN THEATRE’S CHEERFULLY BONKERS ‘DRIVE-IN MELODRAMA’ MEANS NEVER HAVING TO LEAVE THE PARKING LOT
Q: You work at Fresno Music Academy & Arts in Fresno. It must be satisfying to see talented students growing in their acting skills. I know that you’re really impressed with how the hero and heroine in the show have grown during the performance run. Tell us about that.
A: It is absolutely satisfying! Seeing kids come into their own and become confident performers is one of the most exciting transformations a person can witness. I have had the privilege of working with many talented kids in different settings. Alex Revee (The Hero) and Grace Mierkey (The Heroine) are two of my favorites. When I first met Alex, he was so shy that he would hardly say a word! Over time, we would discover that he had an absolutely lovely voice and solid instincts on stage. Grace was quiet, too, but her personality offstage had us convinced that once she developed her confidence, she would be fantastic in any role she set her mind on. These are their first lead roles in an adult production, and I couldn’t be more proud of their confidence and ability. They get better every show.
Q: As far as acting goes, I know that melodramas aren’t your favorite kind of theater, but you still summon up an amazing amount of stage energy when you’re up there playing the villain. That’s something I noticed in your recent Good Company Players performances (in “Newsies” and “Something Rotten!”) as well: You completely inhabit a character and make us believe there’s nothing else in the world you’d rather be doing. How do you keep up the energy level? Are you this way in life other than theater?
A: I appreciate that, thank you! I think there are two sides to it, really. I feel that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing 100%. Since childhood, I’ve had such an unhealthy relationship with failure. While the fear of failure doesn’t inherently provide talent, it can provide focus and adrenaline. So, from the moment I am dressed and ready to go, to the last scene or musical number, my brain is being pounded with waves of stress hormones which help me do what I need to do. Strangely enough, I also have fun doing it. As far as being “this way in life,” I suppose I would consider myself a bit of a perfectionist and a driven person, but I hope that I don’t come off as strongly as some of my characters do.
Q: Now that we’ve talked about the show, let’s talk about you. I know that you’re close to your mom; it’s because of her that you ended up as Lyric and not Blue, which your rock ‘n’ roll biological father wanted to name you. Tell us about Jennifer Janine, your mother, what she does for GCT, and how she has impacted your life.
A: My mom has a LOT of theatre experience both on stage and off, she’s kind of a badass. She is currently the artistic director for The Golden Chain Theatre, and is just about to announce an exciting 2022 season! GCT had a gradual transformation from a melodrama-only theater to what it is today, and she was a huge part of that. We’re originally from Bakersfield; that’s where we get a lot of our know-how. On top of being involved with three different theater companies, she was the director of a school of performing arts for many years. I was homeschooled for a long time, so I basically grew up in theater. The stage was my playground and classroom. I was working on sets and full backdrops at the age of 9. Gained a lot of skills that really come in handy, so I’m thankful. My mom is talented, beautiful, strong and driven! I just love her!
Q: Gender and identity can be complicated. You’re known for playing female roles, but people shouldn’t make any assumptions about how you identify offstage. Are you still on a journey of gender transition? And in terms of acceptance, am I making my own assumptions, or can it be more difficult living in a mountain town compared to a larger city?
A: Let me just say, my opinions and feelings about my identity have changed significantly since this pandemic. I originally auditioned for “Newsies” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre as an effort to escape my feminine history (it’s also a childhood favorite). I wanted to audition somewhere I had never been, to see if it would feel different. It was my hope that people would be more accepting in the city, or that I would at least get to go without people constantly comparing me to the girl that I used to be. It was never any easier, it was just different.
When you show up to a new theater, you feel as if you only have one chance to make a solid first impression. For 20 years, I had been confidently performing as a woman, but I showed up to that audition as a short, big-hipped guy with a strange timbre to my voice. I realized, literally in the middle of singing “Santa Fe” in front of everyone, that convincingly performing as a man was going to have to look very different for me. I was going to need to grow a lot, but I was ready for that.
I was told later that you should never audition with a song from the actual show you’re auditioning for at Roger Rocka’s, which was very embarrassing at the time. It’s a little bit of a shock to be seen as you are in that moment, without all of your previous accomplishments being considered to back you up. To some, I will never be as castable as I used to be. Oh well! My vocal range isn’t as wide as it used to be, but my character range has doubled.
I’d play a boy, I’d play a girl; whatever you see on stage is just a persona, and doesn’t necessarily represent who I am. I see old Lyric and New Lyric as the same person now, and I no longer resent who I used to be. Mountain people may not be frequently exposed to LGBTQ+ topics, but most are willing to learn. No matter where you are, there will be people who respect you, and people who don’t. That’s what it boils down to.
Q: You work in Fresno, and your boyfriend lives here, yet you also have a fierce loyalty to GCT in Oakhurst. Why is the company so important to you? And which city do you think will win out in the end?
A: GCT isn’t like other theaters, really. Most of our performers are involved way past just playing their characters. The guy you just saw playing Teddy Roosevelt might have painted the backdrop, the girl you just saw play Wendy in “Peter Pan” choreographs entire shows on her own, oh, and speaking of “Peter Pan” — that’s one of the many stories our creative team has turned into all original musicals. People are given unique opportunities to prove themselves in stagecraft, design, choreography, and other constructive areas.
Although the quality of our performances is important to us, the atmosphere and feeling of family is equally as important. Everyone has their own strengths, so we do our best to allow them to explore and develop those strengths in a safe environment. It’s a very special place, and, I think, rare. As far as which place will win out, I’m sure my boyfriend would love to know. I guess we’ll have to see what roles they want to give me in Fresno (just kidding)!
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: Please support live theater! And always be kind to people, especially to those that you may not fully understand.
Q: Something to add: I want to give you a chance to acknowledge Eben Hammond Jr., a dear friend and former actor in Golden Chain Theatre who was killed just a few weeks ago in a hit-and-run accident. This must have been so hard for you and for the company. How are you holding up?
A: We haven’t found the person responsible for his death yet. On top of this unimaginable loss, none of his friends and family have been allowed the closure of knowing who did this and why. Everyone who knew him has been having a very hard time recently. He’s not someone you could ever forget. This happened in Oakhurst, but we’re looking everywhere. Did someone you know disappear unexpectedly for a day or more beginning July 8? Did someone show up with a different car than they usually drive? Did someone call in sick to a workplace on July 8 when they were expected? Any unusual behavior could be a clue.
Witnesses described it as a dark SUV type vehicle, with round yellow headlights and rectangular tail lights. It will have possible damage to the front passenger side and a broken windshield. Possible alternate description: (from the CHP) “…the vehicle of interest could resemble that of a smaller SUV, station wagon or crossover type vehicle. The vehicle could be white or silver, and possibly two-toned, with significant windshield and hood damage.”
If you have any information that could help identify the driver who killed Eben, please contact Valley Crime Stoppers at 559-498-7867 or the Oakhurst CHP office at 559-658-6590. Please call even if you’re unsure if it’s connected, but it’s the right time and date. Don’t let the smallest possibility of bringing the driver to justice pass by.