By Michelle F. Solomon
Actor Etai Benson heaps praise on his South Florida roots in helping him to navigate his “role of a lifetime.” The Coral Springs native plays Adam Hochberg in An American In Paris, now on a national tour and coming to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts this week.
The character is an aspiring composer and works as a rehearsal pianist at a Paris ballet school. He’s also the narrator of the show. Benson credits a role he played to acclaim at GableStage as the “artistic turning point” of his career.
In 2013, Benson starred with Avi Hoffman and Laura Turnbull in Joe Adler’s production of My Name is Asher Lev.
“The experience of ‘Asher Lev’ was one of those career moments where I did mature into the actor that allowed me to play (Adam Hochberg).”
Benson auditioned for An American In Paris “about three years ago, just before I came to do Asher Lev at GableStage. It was for the original Broadway workshop for the role of Adam Hochberg. I made it very far, yet I didn’t get the role. I read a lot younger back then and I still quite hadn’t matured as an actor for what this role requires.”
As the character of Asher Lev at GableStage, Benson was tasked with being the narrator of Aaron Posner’s play, based on Chaim Potok’s novel, of a young student in post-WWII Brooklyn who is torn between his Hasidic upbringing and his desire to become a painter.
“In An American in Paris, my character is the narrator and I speak to 2,000 people every night. I did the same thing with Asher Lev on a smaller scale and spoke directly to the audience. I had never done that before. I narrated that entire show. It helped train me for this.”
High school in South Florida was also his training ground. “Theater, especially at the high school level in Florida is strong. I never performed professionally when I was living in Florida until I came back to perform in Asher Lev at GableStage. But, the drama program at my high school, JP Taravella with director Lori Sessions – well, she has changed so many kids’ lives. I threw myself into those programs.”
While his ambition was to become a filmmaker – “I would make little films with my dad’s camera,” a role in the Wizard of Oz in eighth grade when he was cast as the Tin Man would cement his future aspirations.
For three summers during high school, Benson attended performing arts camp in the Catskills – the renowned Stagedoor Manor, which boasts alumni such as Natalie Portman, Robert Downey Jr., Ansel Elgort, Lea Michele and Jon Cryer.
He went on to the University of Michigan, where he studied theater. “I auditioned for a lot of schools when I realized that I wanted to do this for a living and I knew that Michigan had a great program, which a lot of industry luminaries had come out of. Also, it was a real college experience. I wanted to be able to hang at the Quad and go to football games and parties, while being at a great place for theater training and academics.”
He performed across the country, including four summers while in college at The Muny in St. Louis. Various stage roles followed after graduation, including being cast in Asher Lev. His Broadway break came two years ago, when he was cast as Boq, the lovelorn munchkin in Wicked, which then took him on a national tour in the same role.
Benson says he’s always been one to study, research and really get into many of his characters, but his latest has him totally immersed. Playwright Craig Lucas, who wrote the book for the musical An American In Paris has given the character of Adam “more dramatic weight,” says Benson, compared to the 1951 film role of Adam Cook, played by Oscar Levant.
“One of the characters that the playwright really fleshed out was mine. He’s not only the narrator, but he’s a composer and he’s composing the music that you’re hearing, so naturally he sort of becomes the stand in for George Gershwin. In many ways, Adam is the American in Paris.”
The actor says he did a lot of reading and a lot of research into George and Ira Gershwin’s music, whose songs set the stage for An American in Paris. Since he must perform as an accomplished pianist and conductor, Benson was determined to be as authentic as possible. “I played piano as a kid, but the music played in the show is very difficult,” he says, while revealing that although he’s playing the piano on stage, “there’s no sound coming out of it. I did study with our musical director and our piano player. They played with an overhead camera, so I’d study the piano player’s hands to try to, as close as possible, emulate the hands. It had to look real, so I wanted to make it look real. And I took a conducting lesson from our musical director. These are the extra things that you forget you have to do on top of understanding the character and learning the words and the music.”
There was another aspect to the character Benson wanted to get right. Having spent his early childhood living in Haifa, Israel, he found the Jewishness of the character, especially in the new stage production, difficult to “ignore.”
“It’s at the forefront of the character, for sure, because the action has been moved to 1945, so you can’t brush aside the Jewish themes of that time period in Europe. My character mentions and talks about his Jewishness several times in the show. While it’s not a Holocaust or Jewish play, the playwright doesn’t brush those issues aside. He really brings them out and explores them a bit, so I think that adds that extra drama to the story that was absent in the film.”
The Hochberg character is a former G.I. in the U.S. Army. “Not only did he fight in the war, but he was injured. I walk with a limp in the show. I wanted to explore that part of the character more. I read this terrific book with a hilarious title called ‘G.I. Jews.’ It’s all about the Jewish G.I.s who fought in World War II and how it affected them as Jews, what it did to their beliefs, and what fighting in the war meant to be a Jewish American in the 1940s.”
He finds that there’s much about An American in Paris that resonates with audiences and especially in the current transition the U.S. is undergoing.
“The question we’re asking in this show is: ‘How do you emerge out of a period of darkness?’ And the message we send is that for us, it’s through love and art, and through joy and hope.”
An American in Paris is at the Adrienne Arsht Center, Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, from Dec. 27, 2016, through Jan. 1, 2017. Tickets start at $29. For tickets visit www.arshtcenter.org, or call the box office at 305.949.6722.