July 18--The Cowardly Lion may live in the land of Oz, but when Bert Lahr played him in the 1939 movie, he spoke with a New York accent.
"He did a sort of Brooklyn, N.Y., guy -- that was the context in which he understood the comedy," said Lance Roberts, who is playing the Cowardly Lion in the North Shore Music Theatre's production of "The Wizard of Oz."
Like Lahr, Roberts is also from New York, but he developed his sense of humor in a different neighborhood -- in Harlem.
"I love Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson, even Whoopie Goldberg," he said. "So, I have combined all of those characters into this new lion. There's even a little George Jefferson in there.
"Hopefully, people will be open to a new interpretation, instead of an impersonation. Hopefully, it will be an homage to all these great African-American comedians I love."
While he hails from New York, Roberts is familiar with the North Shore, having graduated from Masconomet High School in 1977.
"I was part of a program called ABC," Roberts said, referring to A Better Chance, an educational opportunity program that was founded in the 1960s. "I was part of the first group at Masconomet. It gave these inner-city kids a chance to come up here in 1974."
Roberts had been admitted to the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, but his mother urged him to come to Massachusetts.
"She thought it was a better opportunity," Roberts said. "She knew that Masconomet had courses that prepared you for college, and that was her goal."
In addition to a "spectacular curriculum," Masconomet also offered every opportunity an aspiring performer could want.
"They had theater, musicals, dramas, chorals, big singing groups," he said. "We also had a rock band that was a class, called rock ensemble, that was taught by Mr. Robert Manseau. You auditioned for it, but once you got in, it was great. We did gigs."
Roberts often performed with fellow classmate and Topsfield native Donna Murphy, who went on to win Tony Awards for her appearances in Stephen Sondheim's musical "Passion" and for "The King and I."
"We starred in all the musicals, 'Godspell,' 'Flower Drum Song,' and also competed in speech and drama, as well, going to the nationals in Detroit one year," he said. "We were on 'Community Auditions' together. We had an album."
When he recently traveled back for "The Wizard of Oz," Roberts went to Masconomet and took a picture of the school's new buildings, which he sent to Murphy.
"She said, 'You're here?' She said, 'You're not going to believe this, but I'm over on Route 114,'" he said.
Roberts did go to college -- at Tufts -- as his mother had hoped, but left in his junior year for a job in a musical production called "Late Night Strut," which featured music and dance from the 1930s and '40s. It was eventually filmed and broadcast on PBS in 1988, but after the stage version closed in 1980, Roberts went back to New York.
"I went home to rest, and the next thing you know, I was in a revival of a show," he said. "Once I started working in New York, I kept saying, 'I'm going back to Tufts.' Here we are 35 years later, but it's still on my to-do list."
Roberts has lived in California since traveling to Los Angeles in 1983 with a musical that flopped.
"It was warm," he said. "I stayed for 28 years."
Although he was living in the land of film and television, for a long time Roberts stuck to what he knew.
"I got the greatest theater jobs ever," he said. "I was in the original L.A. company of 'Cats,' as an understudy for Old Deuteronomy -- I got to do it over 100 times. I got to do the original L.A. company of 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.'"
He didn't work in New York again until 2011, when he played The King of Cartoons in "The Pee Wee Herman Show" on Broadway, a production that was filmed and will appear on HBO starting Aug. 1.
"It featured Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman, and all the people from the Play House," Roberts said. "The fun was that everyone knew the characters, so when we came out and were introduced, there was thunderous applause every night. They were applauding for the character, but I got to enjoy it."
That appearance led to roles in three other Broadway shows, including "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with Scarlett Johansson.
"I'm still here as long as I'm working here," Roberts said. "But Los Angeles is where my home base is."
Though he has worked mostly in theater, Roberts started landing television roles in the '80s and recently filmed episodes on "White Collar" and "Nurse Jackie."
"The TV thing seems like it's getting more and more a part of my life," he said.
He has worked with some famous stars, including Charlton Heston, who left Roberts tongue-tied in a scene they were shooting.
"I got to be on an episode of his TV show, 'The Colbys,' which was a spinoff of 'Dynasty,'" he said. "I was playing a reporter. Charlton Heston drives up in a limo, and I'm supposed to say, 'Here comes Jason Colby.'"
"We didn't bother to rehearse, 'cause it's only one line, so I turned around, I see Charlton Heston, and I say, 'Here comes Charlton Heston.'"
"Everyone cracks up," he said. "It was the first shot of the day."
Roberts, who recently appeared in his first feature film with Jane Fonda, is surprised to see all the movies being made these days on the North Shore.
But right now he is focused on his role in "The Wizard of Oz," which has been around as a play since the 1880s, he said.
The version at North Shore Music Theatre was developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company about a decade ago and is based on the film.
"It's been around in a lot of versions, but the one that has become loved by us is the MGM film," he said. "I start having flashbacks to that time, when it came on once a year, and it was an event.
THE WIZARD OF OZ Where: North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly When: Now through Aug. 4 Cost: $45 to $75 Tickets & information: nsmt.org
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