Man of multiple talents

Thespian: Actor Larry Munsey is also an accomplished costume designer, educator and administrator who thrives on all aspects of theatrical arts.

November 27, 2003|By R.N. Marshall | R.N. Marshall,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the current Arena Stage production of Lerner and Lowe's Camelot in Washington, a certain knight in shining armor hails not from the bright lights of Broadway, but from Howard County.

Lawrence Brimmer (his professional Actors Equity name) has been better known to local audiences at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, until recently, as Larry Munsey.

This charming, soft-spoken man of multiple talents has an impressive list of credits. As a leading actor, he has played title roles in The Jazz Singer and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Toby's. He appeared as the lead in Tommy at the Maryland Arts Festival and has toured nationally in Me and My Girl for Maryland-based Troika Entertainment, as well as with John Davidson in State Fair.

Munsey has also performed in Las Vegas in top shows such as Jubilee at Bally's and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express.

Munsey is also an accomplished costume designer, educator and administrator who thrives on all aspects of theatrical arts.

For Toby's recent spectacular, Ragtime, the Broadway-quality costumes -- more than 250 outfits -- were Larry Munsey originals. Other Toby's productions for which he has provided costumes include the popular and critically acclaimed Wizard of Oz, Annie, Damn Yankees, and multiple Young Audience shows.

Born in Silver Spring, Munsey grew up in Gaithersburg, where his parents live. As a child "he had to be the center of attention," his mother said. "He'd do cartwheels around the house."

A production of Ice Capades caught young Larry's imagination. "It was so magical," he remembered. But curiosity went beyond the spectacle. "I would look for the ice skate blades, under the curtains, wanting to know what was going on backstage," he said.

His mother took Munsey to ice skating lessons and practice sessions, many at 6:30 a.m., before school. He excelled and won several competitions but hung up his ice skates at Gaithersburg High School to do plays.

Drama coach Charlotte Hehn played a pivotal role. "She made me feel it was OK to be me and encouraged me to go for it, against the odds," he said.

"Theater is generally thankless and doesn't pay well. But there was clearly a spark there," Hehn said. "Larry would rather starve to death than not perform. He was always willing to go the extra mile."

Long ago, Toby's Dinner Theatre was short one dancer for its big tapping musical, 42nd Street. Munsey showed up to audition, although he had never tap danced. Director Toby Orenstein and choreographer Ilona Kessel were so impressed by his ability to pick up the moves quickly that he got the part.

Although Munsey took acting classes at Montgomery College, he credits his mentor, Orenstein, for most of his acting training. "She's a wonderful educator," he said.

Orenstein said she has seen enormous changes in Munsey's ability over the years. "He started as a chorus kid and grew. His singing got stronger, as did his acting," she said. "Larry has a great eye. He knows the difference between good and bad. He can see the mistakes so he can fix them. That's very important for any actor."

Munsey continues his behind-the-scenes work with Orenstein and Columbia Center for the Theatrical Arts, an educational offshoot of her theater organization.

"As a teacher, the kids love him," Orenstein said. "As an artistic coordinator, his vision is terrific."

Munsey officially became Lawrence Brimmer when he first worked for Arena Stage in last season's South Pacific. Hearing about the casting call from a friend, he auditioned "in front of that table of executioners," as Munsey called the intimidating lineup of director and production team that actors must face.

"Auditioning is always the very worst part of this business. It never gets easy," he said.

Even though Munsey has known and worked with Orenstein for years, he acknowledges that he finds it more difficult to audition in front of friends. "With Toby, I hold her opinion in such high regard that I don't want to disappoint her if I don't do a good job. The pressure is higher," he said.

Working with Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith on Camelot has been "an amazing ensemble experience" for Munsey.

"I am honored to be working with such a high caliber of actors on Camelot," Munsey said.

This cast features Broadway professionals such as Matt Bogart (who recently appeared in Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida) playing Sir Lancelot, Steven Skybell as King Arthur (his credits include The Full Monty) and Kate Suber as Guinevere (her credits include the musical Titanic).

Munsey prefers living in Howard County and after touring in shows is always happy to be back. "I really like the community. We have great stores, restaurants, activities and theater. We're so close to New York and D.C., and the beach is only two hours away," he said.

"It's like the character Pippin," Orenstein said in agreement. "Everything is in your own back yard."

Munsey said he is driven and has to have many things going on at once. He might have picked up that trait from Orenstein, who said, "One thing I think he learned from me, and I don't know if that is such a good thing, is to juggle all those balls."

Munsey said he is learning it is OK to have down time. But for now, it looks as if his career is onward and upward.

Toby's 25th-anniversary season starts with "Meet Me in St. Louis", which opens today and plays through Feb. 8, followed by Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, 21044. Information: 410-730-8311, or www.tobysdinnertheatre.com. Camelot plays through Jan. 4 in Fichandler Theatre at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington 20024. Information: 202-488- 3300 or www.arenastage.org

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