MAPLEWOOD, NJ – Gavin Lee is no stranger to unique, non-human characters. Just look at the last three years of his Broadway career.
The two-time Tony Award nominee is coming off the touring production of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical, where he played The Grinch. Before that, Lee was nominated for a Tony Award as Squidward in Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical.
Now, the Maplewood resident has officially turned in his tentacles and long, green fingers for a pair of candlesticks, as Lee stars as Lumiere in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse.
“Its nice that I’m segueing into roles that are really characterful and really appropriate for my family to come and see,” Lee said following the show’s official opening on June 2. “I don’t want to be doing Shakespeare anymore because my 8 year old and my 6 year old don’t want to be going to see that, so I love that at this time I’m doing shows that my kids want to come and see over and over again.”
The family sentiment comes full circle for Lee. Outside of playing roles that his kids enjoy seeing, he also gets to see his family a lot more, as the Paper Mill Playhouse is just minutes away from his Maplewood home. This allows Lee to make it home in time for dinner and family time between matinee and evening performances.
On stage, Lee brings a whimsical, yet elegant persona to Lumiere, which plays right into the Broadway vet’s real life personality.
From the first scene in which Lumiere appears, audiences are greeted with the comedic relief that only a certain type of actor can provide. Lee appears to be in that group, that includes Jerry Orbach (Lumiere in the original movie) and Gary Beach (Lumiere in the original Broadway production).
Aside from the almost non-stop one-liners that come from the talking candlestick, the actual candlesticks themselves that also provide an extra layer of comedic relief throughout the show.
The lights on both candlesticks, as well as the candle on his head, are controlled by buttons fixed to the right candlestick. Throughout the entire tech week, Lee had to practice activating the lights so that they turned on at just the right time. This was no easy feat, as there is a half-second delay from button-to-light.
“I had to work out when I want the light to come on and make sure the word before it, I’m pressing the button,” Lee said, “which is a little weird because when you have the idea, you want the light to come on, but you have to press the button before you have the idea to get the lights to come on.”
Strange stage props are no stranger to Lee. His two previous roles required him to use extra-long green-furred gloves (The Grinch) and two extra sets of tentacle legs (Squidward). In each role, Lee used the props during dance numbers and other on-stage stunts, so Lumiere’s candlesticks is par-for-the-course for him.
“I like being the character that has something different about them, has a prop that in a way is gimmicky but adds something,” Lee said. “I kind of come from a physical point of view when I’m first thinking about the character. How am I going to work these candlesticks? What am I going to look like in profile? I stand in front of the mirror with eh candlesticks, same as I did with the Grinch finders and Spongebob legs.”
Lumiere is the latest in a string of legendary roles for Lee. Aside from the Grinch and Squidward, a younger Lee starred in another Disney movie-turned-Broadway show, Mary Poppins.
Lee took on the role of Bert in the show’s original West End premiere in 2004, before transferring to Broadway when the show launched on the Great White Way in 2006. The London-turned-Maplewood native loved the Bert role so much, he launched the U.S. touring production in 2009, before returning to the Broadway company in 2010.
“I just feel really privileged that I’m very much in the Disney Theatrical family,” Lee said. “I just recently went and sung down for Disney Theatrical down at EPCOT for a couple of weeks. I did a couple of concerts with other Disney Broadway alumni type people. I just love Disney Theatrical. They’ve been great to me. They do great work and long may it continue.”
Performances of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast continue at Paper Mill Playhouse until July 3. For more information, including tickets for remaining shows, go to PaperMill.org.