Peter Gregus: Gay actor makes his local debut in 'Evita' at SF Playhouse

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday June 25, 2024
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Peter Gregus as Juan Perón and Sophia Alawi as Eva Perón in <br>San Francisco Playhouse's 'Evita'  (photo: Jessica Palopoli)
Peter Gregus as Juan Perón and Sophia Alawi as Eva Perón in
San Francisco Playhouse's 'Evita' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)

After living in New York for the first 60 years of his life, Bronx-born actor Peter Gregus moved to the Bay Area last fall. He's making his local stage debut as Juan Peron in the new production of "Evita" now playing at the San Francisco Playhouse.

It's an unusual move for a working Broadway veteran, but Gregus' partner, who previously ran a non-profit helping underserved communities gain access to PrEP, recently began a grad school program at Stanford and Gregus was up for a change.

"I think there's enough union theater work for me to stay here," said Gregus in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "And at this stage of my life, I'm appreciating the slower pace. I was back in New York for five days, just before we began 'Evita' rehearsals, and it was a little jarring. I was like 'Whoa! It seems kind of hectic and crazy here.' California has already started to work its magic on me.

"'Evita' is really my introduction to the local theater community. Hopefully I'll get good reviews and invite people to see it and say, 'Hey, I'm here now. Look what I can do!"

Among other the things Gregus would like to do in Bay Area theater is play more openly queer characters.

"I would love that," he said. "Bring it on! The last thing I did in New York was a one-night benefit of Yasmina Reza's 'Art' in which we played the three male characters all as gay. The dialogue was already so catty, so it worked really well."

Peter Gregus as Bob Crewe in 'Jersey Boys' (photo: Joan Marcus)  

Negotiating gayness
The Broadway role that provided Gregus his greatest success, along with a level of financial security unusual for a journeyman New York actor and dancer, was a gay character: Bob Crewe, the genius songwriter/producer in "Jersey Boys," who Gregus played from the show's development production at the La Jolla Playhouse and through its entire 11-year Broadway run.
But therein lies a twisted tale.

"When we were first rehearsing for the show," said Gregus, "The director, Des McAnuff, didn't want us to meet with the people we were playing. He felt that the writers had done the research and that we should just play the characters as they were written on the page.

"McAnuff, who is a straight man, directed me to play Crewe very flamboyantly, almost as a kind of comic relief. Sassy and outrageous. Then, between the La Jolla and New York runs, I had the chance to visit with Crewe at his four-story all glass house in LA. There was modern art and gold records hanging all over the place. It was insane.

"He was a very witty, charismatic guy, but not especially flamboyant. And it turned out that he didn't like the way I'd played him at all. I remember him saying that he didn't like effeminate men; that if you wanted to be with a man, you should be with a man.

"When we went in for the first read-through before opening on Broadway, I noticed that some of my more lines were calmed down or changed or taken out, basically made less gay.

"Before the next day's rehearsal, Des McAnuff had met with the writers and told them he was unhappy; he wanted the character to be like he'd been in La Jolla. He wanted a very flouncy, Paul Lynde type of thing.

Peter Gregus  

"I tried not to go there, not to bring back everything from La Jolla, but Des McAnuff was my boss and that's what he insisted on. I was trying to find a balance between that and the actual Bob Crewe."

Caught in the middle
Gregus was the rope in a tug of war between two points of view that could both be viewed as homophobic.

"Of course," said Gregus, "what was on the page had nothing to do with Crewe's sexuality at all. It was about him dealing with these four idiots from New Jersey who were very talented but had no clue about how to produce a record. But the writers put some of the outrageousness back into the script like Des wanted.

"Then, one day at rehearsal, Des gets on the phone. It's Bob calling from LA. And I hear Des screaming at him, 'Well then I'm going to just cut out your fucking part!' Bob was like, I don't want to be portrayed as a flaming homosexual, and Des' response was that he'd just cut him out of the story altogether if he didn't like it.

"I was just shaking in my boots. This was my first big role on Broadway, and it sounded like the part was about to get cut. There ended up being a lot of negotiation and somehow, Rick Elice, one of the book writers, somehow massaged Bob into allowing the role to be played how Des McAnuff wanted.

Later, when multiple productions of "Jersey Boys" began touring the world, Des pushed the actors to play Bob even more flamboyantly than I was doing in New York. And sometimes Des would check in on New York and I'd get a message from the stage manager: 'Camp it up! Be more flamboyant or you're going to get fired. Somehow, I kept under the radar enough to last through all 11 years.

"Crewe was never happy about it," said Gregus. "He was very cold to me when the show opened and when we won our Tonys. It kind of pissed me off because he was blaming me, right? I have to do what the director tells me, or I get fired. So that's kind of dickish of him.

"Still, I have to give Bob Crewe a lot of credit for surviving as a gay man in the 1960s and in the record industry. He wasn't particularly flamboyant, but he was out. He had boyfriends who the Four Seasons knew. He told me that he wrote 'I Can't Take My Eyes Off of You' about a boyfriend. At one point that was the third most recorded song of all time; and it was about a gay relationship."

Juan Perón (Peter Gregus) is charmed by a young Eva (Sophia Alawi) in San Francisco Playhouse's 'Evita.' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)  

New direction
In addition to playing more gay characters, Gregus hopes to have a more collaborative relationship with directors away from the high-pressured, crowd-pleasing commercial exigencies of Broadway-targeted productions. He says things are off to a great start.

"Bill English at the San Francisco Playhouse is a very collaborative, organic director," said Gregus. "Even before we started rehearsals, we spend a lot of time talking about the script. He had strong points of view, but then he asked me what I thought about the character. That's a rarity for an actor on Broadway.

"One of the things we're bringing out in this 'Evita' that's different than other productions is the impact of the big age difference between Peron and Evita: The urgency of her youth, the patience that he's learned over time.

"Bill has also brought in an Argentinian dramaturg who is providing some perspective on some of the positive energy around Evita. Yes, there was corruption in the government. But he explained how there were laborers and blue-collar people who genuinely appreciated some of the things she did, making sure people had food and hospitals. So that's softened the edges of what's often a colder, darker show. When I'm in a room like that, where anyone is free to talk and share ideas that spark your brain, it's really wonderful."

'Evita,' through September 7. $20-$135. San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. (415) 677-9596.

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