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Chad Kimball in Murder in the First at 59E59 Theaters
by Wayman Wong

Chad Kimball
Chad Kimball won rave reviews as Huey Calhoun, the colorful "funny-talkin'" deejay in Memphis, the 2010 Tony-winning musical about the birth of rock 'n' roll. But the multi-nominated actor from Seattle is now making his New York dramatic debut with a totally different Rock and role. In Dan Gordon's Murder in the First, he's playing Willie Moore, a hardened and heartbreaking prisoner at Alcatraz on trial for killing a fellow inmate with a spoon in 1941.

Though Kimball, 35, is best-known for doing a slew of musicals on Broadway and Off-Broadway, including Into the Woods and Godspell, critics have applauded his dynamic departure. Ken Jaworowski in the New York Times wrote: "In his first role since his Tony-nominated turn in Memphis, he delivers an exceptional performance, wisely underplaying the broken man." And David Finkle at TheaterMania called it "a breakout transformation from musical leading man to dramatic actor."

Guy Burnet, the British TV star ("Hollyoaks") who plays Henry, Willie's dedicated and loyal lawyer, adds, "Chad's such a giving and selfless actor. He's brilliant as Willie, and probably the coolest, fucking person ever. We get on very well, and I think our chemistry comes through."

Chad Kimball and Guy Burnet in Murder in the First
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Murder in the First, based on Gordon's book which became a 1995 movie, is set to close Sunday, July 1, at 59E59 Theaters. But Kimball says there's been talk of a transfer and "that would be fantastic."

Meanwhile, he revealed how he's getting away with Murder and shared his memories of Memphis.

Wayman Wong:  What's it been like to make your New York dramatic debut in Murder in the First?

Chad Kimball:  The emotional demands have been incredibly difficult because I feel so bad for Willie. I tried to lock myself in my bathroom, but it didn't work. (Laughs.) But seriously, he was in solitary confinement for three years, in the pitch black, wallowing in his own excrement. He was randomly beaten, and he got a half-hour of "exercise" or sunlight in a year. To equate anything that's happened in my life is ridiculous.

WW:  Did you do a lot of research?

CK:  I think too much research tends to cloud a performance, so I haven't talked to prisoners, watched the movie or read the book. I've never been to Alcatraz or spent any time in jail. At the end of the day, you need to create something that is brand new, not just for the play, but the audience, too. However, when I read the script, I just had this passion to tell this story of absolute injustice. Willie is based on a prisoner named Henry Young, who ended up at Walla Walla State in my home state [of Washington].

WW:  In his first scene, Willie is naked, curled into a fetal position.

CK:  Originally, Willie was supposed to wear long prison underwear, but I thought, "He's in solitary confinement. Who does he have to dress up for?" It didn't make sense for him to wear anything, and my director, Michael Parva, agreed. It's the type of grittiness that grabs you right away.

WW:  Murder in the First is a compelling courtroom drama, but there's a bromance at its center. Willie is up for murder one, and Henry's trying his first homicide case. What's it been like working with Guy?

CK:  Guy's a gem. I knew he was from the U.K., but when we did the first read-through of Act I, I totally forgot. His American accent is, bar none, the best one I've ever heard a Brit use. We hit it off right away. We see these two guys from opposite worlds and they cling to each other. They tell each other their darkest and deepest secrets, and they each have no one but the other. It's a kindredship. There's a scene where Henry forgets he's in a jail cell with a convict. They're just two guys playing cards, shooting the shit.

Guy Burnet and Chad Kimball in
Murder in the First

Photo by Carol Rosegg
WW:  Now that's you've committed Murder, are you eager to do more plays?

CK:  It's funny. At Boston Conservatory, plays are all I wanted to do. I was Andrei in The Three Sisters. I was Polixenes in The Winter's Tale. I played Dr. Dysart in Equus. You'd be surprised. I put on a tweed jacket and slicked back my hair. I've been so, so ecstatic to flex my muscle [in a play] again, not that it's so much different than musicals. And I love musicals, and there's a lot of musical theater in my blood, but this has been such a great experience that I hope to continue.

WW:  What would be some of your dream roles in plays?

CK:  Biff in Death of a Salesman, Chris in All My Sons, Tom in The Glass Menagerie. If I had a dream role in Shakespeare, I'd pick Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1. It's such a fiery and feisty role, as you can tell by the name. I also really have an affinity for creating new roles.

WW:  And the last new role that you really put your stamp on was Huey in Memphis. What did you think when you heard it was going to close August 5th?

CK:  Nothing lasts forever. Except maybe Phantom of the Opera. (Laughs.) I was sad. But also incredibly proud. It's not run its course. It's still touring and there's talk of a London production. It's on Netflix. It played PBS. And I'm so happy so many people embraced it. It had no stars, was an original book musical with an original score. The producers, Joe [DiPietro] and David [Bryan], and my former castmates were all so wonderful. And I'll never forget the night we performed on the Tonys at Radio City Music Hall.

WW:  If you had the chance to reprise the role, would you?

CK:  Oh, sure. Absolutely. After creating it nine years ago, Huey has been such a big part of my life. What I loved about him was that he wasn't your typical leading man. He was the guy that takes risks, messes up and triumphs. So many grown men have told me how much Huey touched them.

WW:  Though you got Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics nominations, and many rave reviews, for playing Huey, there were others who found your character incredibly irritating or cartoony.

CK:  Yeah. I heard some people thought Huey was too annoying or his accent was too exaggerated. But working with Chris [Ashley], Joe and David, we agreed that Huey needed to be different. I also heard from people who say Huey's so grating, but they couldn't help feel for him and were won over.

WW:  During your two-year run on Broadway in Memphis, you missed a lot of shows. What happened?

CK:  I had nerve damage for eight months before it was diagnosed. I thought it was just aches from doing the show, but when I couldn't raise my arm above my shoulder, I knew something was going on. It was called brachial plexus nerve damage of the severe sort. I also had a cervical sprain. I still have some days when it hurts a little, but by and large, it's healed. Some really great physicians got me through it, and I'm happy to say that I'm almost back to 100%, and I'm so thankful. Memphis also was physically the most demanding show I've ever done. As Huey, I was onstage practically the entire time, and when I wasn't, I was changing clothes and coming right back on.

WW:  Were you concerned about the absences and people saying, "There he goes, missing another show!"?

CK:  Yeah, it's hard because you want people to know you're struggling with something and that's why there are absences, but you can't please everyone. Some will misread the situation, and that's just the way it is. What they didn't understand was my absolute love of the show. I wanted to do every single performance, but my body wouldn't allow it. For awhile, I was doing physical therapy, so I did only six shows a week. But I was just spent. I was losing confidence in my physicality. I had to say goodbye and it was very hard. In a lot of ways, Memphis was my first love. But my cast was extremely supportive. And so were the producers, creative team and crew. It was incredibly heartwarming. Now, I miss the show very much.

WW:  Have you seen Memphis since you left last October?

CK:  I have. I went to the 1,000th performance, and I had never seen the show before [from the audience]. I was amazed and so completely entertained. I loved what Adam [Pascal] did. And I hope to make it to the closing. I love Memphis and I'm thrilled I was part of something so special.

(Wayman Wong edits entertainment for the New York Daily News. He was also the first "Leading Men" columnist for and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.)

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