'Ragtime's Leo Ash Evens: actor on his iconic musical theater roles

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday May 31, 2022
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Leo Ash Evens, Christine Dwyer and Nkrumah Gatling in TheatreWorks' 'Ragtime.'
Leo Ash Evens, Christine Dwyer and Nkrumah Gatling in TheatreWorks' 'Ragtime.'

In TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's new production of the hit musical "Ragtime," actor Leo Ash Evens gained inspiration for his role as a Jewish immigrant from his own family's heritage. Before a tech run for the show, which opens in previews June 1, Evens discussed his work on the musical as well as his other iconic roles in musical theater in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

Evens stars as Tateh, a Jewish Immigrant who leaves Latvia to pursue the American Dream and make a life for himself and his daughter. Evens said he has wanted to play this character since he was enchanted by the show at a 1996 pre-Broadway tryout at the age of 13. As Evens, who's also gay, steps onstage, he honors his Jewish heritage and pays homage to his family tree, which includes immigrants from Russia, Austria, and Romanian.

Leo Ash Evens in Central Park  (Source: Instagram)

"Both sides of my family are Jewish," said Evens, whose ancestors were immigrants from Russia, Austria, and Romanian. "Having a role that is the basic foundation of being a Jewish immigrant certainly speaks to me. My grandfather came over through Ellis Island. We think that the full name was Evensky, but it was shortened at Ellis Island. What's interesting is that my character Tateh has a line, 'They gave me a name I can't pronounce.' Not to say that my family name can't be pronounced, just that a lot of names were shortened in the process."

With a Tony Award-winning book by Pulitzer Prize finalist (the late) Terrence McNally, and a Tony Award-winning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, "Ragtime" is adapted from the E.L. Doctorow novel, which was also adapted as a film in 1981.

The musical masterpiece paints a portrait of America at the dawn of the twentieth century, interweaving the lives of three families; an African American family, a Jewish immigrant family, and a wealthy white family.

This is Evens' third show with TheatreWorks. He performed in their production of "Somewhere" by Matthew Lopez (who also wrote "The Inheritance") in 2013, as well as Joe Gilford's "Finks."

Leo Ash Evens in TheatreWorks' 'Ragtime.'  (Source: David Allen)

Iconic roles
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Evens is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, where he got his theater training. When not performing in regional shows, he lives on New York City's Upper West Side.

Evens credits his previous experience with TheatreWorks for landing the role in "Ragtime," but 20 years ago, he was using a song from the show, "Buffalo Nickel," as an audition piece.

"I knew one day I wanted to be Tateh," he said. "I knew even back then that it was a role I wanted to work on some day. And when 'Buffalo Nickel' was listed among the songs to prepare, I already knew it. It's very difficult, but it's one of those classic musical theater songs that, if you know it, you're prepared."

This production of "Ragtime" initially started scheduling in 2019, but as Evens said, "in March 2020 we shut down due to the pandemic. To come back to this is so emotional on that level, and it feels so good to get back to something that we were robbed of."

Evens made his Broadway debut in 2012 as Phillip in "Jesus Christ Superstar," and performed as a swing actor in "School of Rock." His other iconic roles include playing Bert in "Mary Poppins," and the MC in Houston and Denver productions of "Cabaret," his personal favorite.

"There's just something about that MC," he said. "I would love to return to it again for a third time."

Leo Ash Evens (right, blue shirt) as Riff in 'West Side Story'  

When you're a Jet
Evens also played Riff in no less than five productions of "West Side Story."

"It's funny because they were separate productions, but often with the same director or choreographer," said Evens. "For a beautiful four-year timeline, I went through five productions as Riff."

Evens said he didn't play the role the same way because, "It was a different group of guys, and Riff is the leader of the Jets, so it was fun to create it organically again, and the choreography wasn't the same for some of them. In a really cool way, I got to build on what I'd already done."

Jerome Robbins' original choreography is carefully licensed for regional productions. Evens was fortunate to work with two men —Alan Johnson (Robbins' last assistant) and Joey McNeely ("Jerome Robbins' Broadway") on the classic dances.

"They both teach you the original choreography, but they teach you different styles."

Asked what he thought of the Steven Spielberg/Tony Kushner reboot of "West Side Story," Evens said he loved it.

"I'm of course going to be picky because I know it so well," he said. "It was so joyful! I just love that Steven brought so much life to the streets of New York. 'America' was just stunning. And the casting of Rita Moreno was fantastic. To bring her back like that was amazing."

All I need now
In another iconic role, Evens also played Tulsa in the 2006 Chicago Ravinia Festival production of "Gypsy" with Patti Lupone as Rose.

"It was so amazing," he said. "We didn't really think we were doing it to come to New York. Patti always wanted to play the role, and she was fantastic. My favorite Patti story that I've told is, I didn't see her in rehearsals for the first couple of days. She was always by herself. Finally we did an Act I run-through, and "All I Need is the Girl" is towards the end. We hadn't really talked much yet. But as soon as it was over, she came up to me and she said, 'You're good.' And I said, 'Thanks, Patti. I think you're good too.' And she laughed. We immediately developed a respect for each other, that I could throw it back. She liked that a lot.

Leo Ash Evens with Patti Lupone backstage
at the Ravinia Festival production of 'Gypsy'  

"We had a great relationship on and off stage," Evens added. "To experience her energy and commitment on stage is a thing of beauty. You really do understand what it's like to work with a star."

Unfortunately for Evens and most of his castmates, when "Gypsy'" book writer, the late Arthur Laurents, agreed to direct Lupone in the 2008 City Center revival, the rest of the show was recast.

Asked why he returns to TheaterWorks so often, Evens agreed that he likes working with the people, but joked, "It's also the weather. I love nature, I'm always visiting Central Park. But of course that's not the real reason. They're just great to work with. I also have family and friends in San Francisco and San Jose."

Along with performing, Evens has spent more than a decade as the co-director of Musical Theater College Auditions, where he helps young artists develop their skills, including the audition process. Among the new struggles that aspiring actors face is having fewer in-person auditions and more video submissions.

Leo Ash Evens (center) in 'Cabaret'  

"This is my least favorite moment about show business coming out of the pandemic," said Evens. "More and more people are being asked to do the first round of auditions on tape, which I can't stand. I want to be in the room with directors. I want to interact. I love notes. I love making adjustments. Some actors like it because they're electronically savvy. To them, it feels good to control the environment. But I don't like having a friend read scripts with me. You want them to show up for you. Why are we not going more live Zoom calls where the director and the casting director are online? Instead, you have to set it all up yourself when we should focus on being good actors."

Asked how he brings new life to such iconic roles that are known by their initial performers, Evens said, "Of course I've seen the film versions of the MC and Riff, but when I do my own personal research, I just try to use elements of my own life to connect to the foundational elements of the people I play. With the MC being Jewish and all of the German aspects —whose side is he on?— I used some of the anti-Semitic hate that came my way as a kid. One time, some kids put swastikas on a bus with tape. So I use that, what that felt like, and I channel that in."

For "Ragtime," Evens says he thinks of his niece. "I think about what it would be like to have a sister, being alone as an immigrant coming to America if I was the father and had this close relationship with her. It's a very powerful protective energy that comes through me that's a parallel to the role of Tateh."

'Ragtime' June 1-26 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. Mountain View. $30-$90. www.theatreworks.org www.leoashevens.com

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