Leading a Jekyll-Hyde life

B Y - A L E X - C R E V A R

When Rob Evan sang "Thanks for the Memories" at Vince Dooley's farewell gala as head coach, the Georgia kicker brought the house down. He's now doing the same thing on Broadway.

Above: Evan at Vice Dooley's farewell gala.
Top of page: Evan metamorphosed from Jekyll to Hyde in 1,000 performances, redefining the role.

The curtain has risen at the Plymouth Theater on West 45th Street in New York, the cast of "Jekyll & Hyde" has finished a haunting number called "Facade," and now the handsome Dr. Jekyll takes center stage, his booming voice, top hat, and cape slicing through the fog-shrouded streets of 19th century London. It's enough to give any theater-goer goose bumps, but the tale of terror has only just begun. In the course of the evening, live and on stage and without benefit of Hollywood makeup men, Rob Evan changes back and forth from the gentlemanly Dr. Jekyll to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. The metamorphosis is convincing and chilling. And who better to play such a demanding part than Evan, whose transformation from Georgia football player to Broadway star is likewise an amazing tale.

A standout high school athlete from Monticello, Ga., Evan (BBA '90) came to UGA in 1985 to study finance. He walked on the football team in 1986 as a kicker, but found himself vying for playing time with the likes of Steve Crumley and John Kasay, whose names are all over the Bulldog record books. Evan's focus on athletics was one reason he never took any drama courses, or sang in the glee club, or acted in any UGA theater productions. Not exactly the prescribed method for making it to The Great White Way, but Evan had one very powerful thing going for him: a voice that can raise the roof.

"I didn't sing or act at all at Georgia; there was little time," Evan recalls over lunch at the Bluebird Cafe in Athens prior to his one-man show at the Classic Center last November. "If you were committed to playing football at an SEC school, you had to make it a year-round, around-the-clock job. My interest in theater didn't really start until I was asked to sing 'Thanks for the Memories' at Vince Dooley's farewell gala as head coach at the Coliseum back in '89."

When Evan finished the old Bob Hope number, the crowd roared its approval. "It was a surprise," says Evan, "and it gave me a real confidence boost."

Hensley (second from left), who won the English equivalent of the Tony Award for his work in "Oklahoma," is getting raves from critics for his current portrayal of Javert in "Les Misérables" in New York.

. . . and over at the Broadway Theatre

Another Bulldog lights up The Great White Way

When "Les Misérables" opened on Broadway on March 12, 1987, the Berlin Wall was still intact, Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, Donald Trump was still married to Ivana—and Shuler Hensley was deciding to leave UGA early to pursue a career in theater.

"I was a pitcher on the baseball team and an international business major at Georgia, but I always knew that I wanted to pursue the theater," says Hensley (M '89), who is the son of Georgia Ballet artistic director Iris Hensley (ABJ '56). In fact, it was in Mom's shows that he got his start in show business. His first part, at age four, was in "The Nutcracker."

After singing throughout his high school years at Westminster in Atlanta, and then performing with the concert choir and glee club at UGA, Hensley headed east to study opera at the Manhattan School of Music, both to get classical training and to be in New York—where, as he says, "you really need to be to break into theater."

He made the right choice, according to the critics.

In a recent review of "Les Mis," Clive Barnes of the New York Post praised J. Mark McVey for his portrayal of Jean Valjean and then went on to say, "Even more effective is the new Javert, Shuler Hensley, who comes to the production after his sensational, award-winning performance in London of Jud in the National Theater's production of 'Oklahoma.' Hensley, with his powerhouse presence, at 6'3", 250 pounds, is just as good as the ruthless Javert."

Hensley won an Olivier Award, the English equivalent of the Tony, for his menacing portrayal of Jud Fry in "Oklahoma," which was produced by "Les Misérables" producer Cameron Mackintosh. When the role of Javert came open in New York last November, the timing was right for a Hensley-Mackintosh reunion.

Hensley has proven to be an extremely versatile performer. His résumé includes operatic roles in "Don Gioavanni," "La Boheme," and "Carmen," as well as the title role in a year-long run of "Phantom of the Opera" in Germany. He is currently hard at work on the role of celebrated sports commentator Keith Jackson in a TNT film, "Monday Night Mayhem," about the early days of Monday Night Football. The made-for-TV movie is scheduled to premiere in time for next year's Super Bowl.

In a departure from his heavy, ominous roles in "Les Mis" and "Oklahoma," Hensley landed a role in the motion picture remake of "Sabrina" and played the title character's best friend in an episode of the popular new TV sitcom "Ed." He will continue to explore the lighter side of his personality in a movie to be released this spring that stars Ashley Judd.

"I want to continue to vary myself," says Hensley, who would like to begin working in films more often. "I enjoy the whole range of acting."

—Kent Hannon

In that moment, a future Jekyll-Hyde and Jean Valjean was born. Only Evan didn't know it yet.

After graduation, he moved to Atlanta to work as an account rep for General Electric. But like his sister, who is a U.S. attorney, he had his sights set on a law career. On a lark, and because it sounded like a high-class evening out, he took a date to Atlanta's Fox Theatre to see "Les Misérables."

"I could barely even say 'Les Misérables,' much less know what the thing was about . . . I was just a jock," Evan recalls. "I walked into the Fox not knowing what I was going to see."

When the show began, Evan was moved almost immediately to tears:

"I walked out of there changed," he says. "I knew I could sing, so I thought to myself, Okay, I've got this talent and now I have to do something with it."

Without telling Evan, a friend entered an audio tape of him singing one of the most dramatic and difficult "Les Misérables" songs, "Bring Him Home," in a Georgia Music Hall of Fame talent contest. Evan's tape was judged the best out of several hundred entries. At the awards ceremony, Albert Coleman, conductor of the Atlanta Pops, took Evan aside and asked him to perform with the Pops as their Broadway singer, in front of a 75-piece orchestra.

Evan says tension kept him from becoming a great college kicker, but he now thrives on the pressures of performing on Broadway.

I started thinking about nothing but singing and theater," says Evan. "I started acting in community productions, landing lead roles every time I walked into an audition, and building connections in Atlanta."

In the course of a few months, Evan would appear at the Fox in "South Pacific," play the lead in "Brigadoon," tour 90 cities with "By George!" play Jesus in "Jesus Christ Superstar," perform with Madeline Kahn in "Hello, Dolly!" and star in his own musical review aboard a Norwegian cruise ship. The cruise ship proved to be the most momentous gig because it's where he met his future wife, Beate, a Norwegian who worked on the ship as a stewardess. They moved to New York and wagered everything on Rob making it on Broadway.

"Moving to New York on virtually no money was scary, but we didn't care," he recalls. "It was that time in life when you throw caution to the wind. You don't care who you owe or how hard things get because you're young and in love."

Evan's big break came in Nashville, of all places, where he dyed his hair shoe-polish black and waited 10 hours to sing 16 bars at an open audition for "Les Misérables." Nothing came of it right away, but the New York casting directors liked what they heard and told him to stay in touch. "That was another huge shot in the arm," he recalls, "and after just three months in New York I landed an ensemble role with the 'Les Misérables' touring company."

Five contracts later, he auditioned for the lead in "Les Mis" on Broadway. The show's producers wanted him for the role of Jean Valjean, but Evan wasn't sure he was ready to play a father.

"And then our first son, Johan, was born," Evan recalls. "It gave me the emotional strength I needed to really make the part work. After that, I started to feel theater magic. I could feel the audience breathing with me and the energy buzzing between us."

Following his success with "Les Mis," Evan cemented his reputation as one of Broadway's up and coming leading men by landing the starring role in "Jekyll & Hyde." Evan played the role—which he calls "the hardest part ever written for a guy"—for 1,000 performances.

"It's a show with big songs about a character with a drug addiction—and it took its toll on my body," says Evan, explaining why he ended his first run with the show. "I would come home with my neck sore like I had whiplash. It's not an ensemble piece like 'Les Mis.' The guy who plays Jekyll-Hyde has got to be Herculean."

Linda Russak, who landed a job as Evan's personal assistant after seeing him perform in "Jekyll & Hyde" 497 times, lauds him as a performer and as a person.

"He doesn't like to be praised and goes out of his way for charities like the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Leukemia Society," says Russack. "He's incredibly generous with his time."

Watching Evan on stage with his 10-piece band at the Classic Center last November, it was easy to see why he has enjoyed so much success in a very competitive business. He sang "Bring Him Home" from "Les Mis" and the "Jekyll & Hyde" show-stopper "This Is the Moment," and he gave the show a night-clubby feel by telling stories between songs.

"Everybody here is witnessing something special—and a whole lot of talent," said Evan's old coach, Vince Dooley, who was in the audience with wife Barbara. "And anyone who's not here is going to hear about it."

Evan fronted a 10-piece band at his homecoming show in November at Athens' Classic Center.

Evan finished the evening appropriately with "Georgia On My Mind," which pleased both his mother, who still lives in Monticello, and his former kicking coach at UGA, Bill Hartman.

"After the show, Rob's mama came up to me and said, 'Coach, you said he wasn't going to be a great kicker, but he sure can sing, can't he!'" says Hartman. "He never got a whole lot of playing time when he was here, but I figure warming up in front of 85,000 people helped him to be ready for Broadway."

"A lot of what kept me from becoming a great football player was tension," says Evan. "I could kick the ball a mile in practice, but in a scrimmage I would tense up. Performing has cured me of that. Now I thrive on pressure."

Evan recently returned to "Jekyll & Hyde" on a part-time basis, playing just the Wednesday and Saturday matinees. The reduced schedule gave him time to concentrate on finishing a solo album, "Moment," and to perform on the Today Show. "Jekyll & Hyde" closed in January—after 1,543 performances—and Evan hopes his next move will be to the big screen.

"It's no bigger jump than going from football to Broadway," he says. "It's like what I tell people who ask advice about getting into show business. I say, 'If you can do anything else in the world, do it. But if it's in your heart and you're 100 percent committed, don't let anybody convince you that you can't do it.'"

Evan reminded the home folks what they're missing with a stirring rendition of the national anthem before last fall's Ole Miss game.

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