Coffee talk

Fort Worth actor David Coffee gets in touch with his feminine side as Edna Turnblad in the local debut of ‘Hairspray’

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HAIR APPARENT | Playing drag as Edna Turnblad is a first for David Coffee, but that didn’t keep him from wearing pumps during his entire interview. (Photo courtesy Robert Hart Studio)

MARK LOWRY  | Special Contributor
mark@theaterjones.com

From a young age, it was clear to everyone around David Coffee what he’d be when he grew up. In second grade in Fort Worth, he had to perform “some sort of talent” for his music class, so he lip-synched all the parts to the entire The Wizard of Oz soundtrack. Later, when visiting his grandparents at an old folks’ home in Oak Cliff, he’d act out the TV shows as the residents watched them on the tube.

He told everyone he wanted to be a doctor. But his second grade teacher and a double amputee at the home set him straight: Acting was clearly the path for him.

Remarkably, the 53-year-old Coffee says that he’s lucky that he’s been able to make a living as an actor, most of it in Fort Worth. Aside from brief teenage stints as a shoe salesman at an Arlington department store and a mail boy at his father’s business, Coffee has consistently worked onstage, beginning his professional career in The Wind in the Willows at what was then called Casa Mañana Children’s Playhouse, in 1968.

“Since that time, I’ve either been playing a show, learning a show or forgetting a show,” he says in his dressing room, where he’s playing Edna Turnblad in Casa’s locally-produced premiere of Hairspray, which opens Saturday.

Coffee spent years touring the country in non-Equity shows in small towns (he’s now an Equity member), 20 years of returning to the Granbury Opera House, and of course, plenty of time at Casa. He has starred with such leading ladies as Cyd Charisse, Betty Buckley and Sandy Duncan. So far in 2011, his work has included Touchstone in As You Like It at Fort Worth’s Trinity Shakespeare Festival (it was his third year of making himself a standout as a Shakespeare clown at TSF); and as Herr Schultz in Dallas Theater Center’s revival-for-the-ages of Cabaret. In December, he’ll play Ebenezer Scrooge for the 19th time at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass.

But the panties role of Edna — played by Harvey Fierstein in 2003 Broadway debut and by Divine in John Waters’ 1988 source film — is historic for him: It marks his 75th show at Casa.

It’s no wonder he’s been able to make it. Character actors typically get more consistent work, and Coffee has been playing roles much older than him since he was a teenager. With a round face and bald head ringed by brown hair, he resembles the image of the wind, that man in the clouds blowing in the sky. When he started as Scrooge at North Shore, he was in his 30s — a part he says has only changed slightly as he has gotten older.

“I clicked into him even as a child,” Coffee says. “I never felt an affinity to Tiny Tim as a child, it was an affinity to Scrooge.”

All of the experience goes into Edna, a comedy role perfect for an actor who has become synonymous with comic relief, who knows how to be hammy without overdoing the pork. It’s the first time the straight actor has played a woman, although he understudied the role at North Shore in 2010. The actor playing Edna gave the advice to make sure that the fat suit has a zipper in the vaginal area, so he can relieve himself without taking off the entire suit.

“I’ve seen people play it soft and feminine, and I don’t do that,” Coffee says about the challenge of playing Edna. He seems to be in touch with his inner woman, though: He sat through the entire interview wearing a pair of pumps that we’ve requested for the photo shoot after the interview. “I don’t pull any big bones about it. The femininity will come through the physicalization, but I don’t do with it the voice. You just play what’s there and you’re OK. You don’t ignore the fact that it’s a guy in drag, because there are a couple of places in the show where they play it up; but other than that, you don’t worry about it.”

That’s just one thing Coffee doesn’t have to worry about, along with having to rely on a day job like almost every local stage actor. Now that’s some sort of talent.

Mark Lowry is a Dallas-based writer and co-founder and editor of TheaterJones.com, where you can read the full Q&A with Coffee.


This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 12, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

EVERYBODY Wang fun TONIGHT

dining
SZECHUAN SPICE | Howard Wang’s boasts evocative decor and the best version of Chinese food in the Uptown area. (Photo courtesy Robert Hart Studio)

Howard Wang’s has the look, and almost the flavor, of  classic Szechuan cuisine

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

The last time I was in San Francisco, I ate out at two restaurants. One was Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ Berkeley bistro that ushered in California cuisine. It was delicious and set us back $180. The other was a Chinese dive in the Haight. It cost $18. It was the better meal — authentic, fiery, unique.

The fact is, great Chinese food is hard to find in America (at least at reasonable prices). Pan-Asian-fusion? Sure. Kobe beef from Japan, or fluffy tempura? Yep. Thai and Vietnamese? You can find it. But the spice and kick of China is as rare as a unicorn. There’s good, even delightful versions of traditional classics, but greatness eludes us. It’s the one form of cuisine where I recalibrate my expectations … though I always hope for the best.

Howard Wang’s Uptown, which opened next the new Gloria’s at Cole and Lemmon, looked promising. For first impressions, you could hardly do better: Brush-stained white pine floors, soothing rich walls, shiny black lacquers and pops of color from paper lanterns and a wall of ceramic masks in bas-relief. It sidles up to cliché with its traditional — some might say predictable — palette, but it never crosses the line, as abstract window panels and an eye-catching bar area lend a modern, social feeling.

The other senses are stimulated as well, with the aroma of fresh wood wafting among the faint hint of peppers. If ever a restaurant’s décor got me in the mood for the kind of food I was anticipating, this was it.

And it almost made it. While the food at Howard Wang’s isn’t at the level it was at that hole-in-the-wall in San Francisco, it makes an admirable foray into the Dallas Chinese cuisine scene. (This ain’t Wang’s first time at the rodeo; he also owns China Grill in North Dallas.)

The menu, in typical brasserie fashion, is large and diverse without overwhelming. Like Pei Wei, it takes you on a grand tour of styles, from stir-fry to broth noodles to satays, salads and wraps. The dim sum list offers standard fare like edamame ($5), egg rolls ($2 each) and potstickers ($7). The latter stands out with its seared plumpness and chewy texture, although the sauces are enough to distinguish almost any of the dishes, with the super-spicy yellow mustard approaching the defiant flavor that makes a meal memorable.

It was a welcome addition to a mild dish like the  Mandarin sweet and sour chicken ($10), which pulls sweetness from lychees and mangoes, with only a hint of bite from the tang of pineapple. The spicy-crispy beef ($10), a stir-fry dish brimming with the pungency of ginger and garlic, packs a punch on its own, although it shies away from gaudy flourishes of spice. The zestiness of the orange peel shrimp ($16) and the General Tsao’s chicken ($14) had similar flashes of zing without going flat-out balls-to-the-wall.

Desserts are never a Chinese signature, although for seven bucks, the honey banana tempura with green tea ice cream is smashing: Plentiful (plan to share), sweet and tart, cool and warm.

Service is almost too solicitous. Our waitress — the same on several visits — is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the food, making suggestions and touting the high-points of several dishes. She has been supplemented by the manager, the owner and other staffers checking on us… perhaps too much attention for a dinner date. But food was delivered fast and pleasantly.

Howard Wang’s won’t make me forget  Haight-Ashbury, but it certainly gives Uptown its most formidable embodiment of Chinese cuisine yet.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 5, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Teen gay dream

GLEEK HERO   |  In just four episodes, Criss has become a popular gay on ‘Glee.’ (Photo by Robert Hart)

Darren Criss, the breakout heartthrob from ‘Glee,’ isn’t gay or a teen, but welcomes more romance for Blaine

MARK LOWRY  |  Special Contributor
mark@theaterjones.com

Aside from the hot pink sunglasses, and the assistant who occasionally makes sure that his natural curls fall just so on his forehead, Darren Criss doesn’t come across as the young actor whose star is on a rocket’s upward path.

A new, popular actor on the hit Fox show Glee, Criss possesses an articulate intelligence and level-headedness that belies his age (he turns 24 in under a month). On the show, Criss plays Dalton Academy gay student Blaine, the teenage dream with the glassy brown eyes and plush eyebrows that make Kurt (Chris Colfer) — not to mention the rest of gay America — swoon.

Criss was in North Texas last weekend at the Fort Worth auditions for The Glee Project, a reality show that will debut on Oxygen in June where 12 contestants will vie for a role on Glee. The winner is guaranteed multiple episodes next season. Whether this new character (which hasn’t been written yet, so it’s open to gender and type) becomes a recurring character depends on his or her popularity with audiences.

The winner would be lucky to repeat the feat accomplished by Criss, who in a scant four episodes has already proven so popular that he’s been confirmed as a series regular for the rest of Seasons 2 and 3. The real question that the gay fans of the show — and we hear there are a few — are asking: Will the Kurt/Blaine friendship develop into something more?

“I’m just as curious as everybody else,” Criss says. “Obviously the potential is there. As much as all of us want to see that happen immediately, I think the most important thing to convey between the two of them is that of a support system. It’s really important to show young people especially that there’s a person to confide in, and that friendship is possible. If that does evolve into a romantic relationship, then awesome. But let’s hope that it’s warranted, and real. And there’s no greater way to portray a love story than to prolong it as long as possible.”

Criss knows a thing or two about fictional love stories. The San Francisco native has been doing theater for much of his short life. In high school and as a student at the University of Michigan, he appeared in musicals like the “lost Sondheim” show Do I Hear a Waltz and the Rodgers and Hart classic Babes in Arms.

“I’m a big Rodgers and Hart fan. For my audition for Blaine, I sang ‘Where or When’ [from Babes],” he says. “I was a big musical theater rat. I was just a fanboy who got lucky.”

During college, Criss became a member of the UM alumni theater company Team Starkid, playing Harry Potter in the spoof A Very Potter Musical and writing songs for the original musical Me and My Dick (the recording is available on iTunes). He also released a solo EP called Human, showing off his smooth tenor. (There’s a Facebook group called “I liked Darren Criss before he was on Glee.”)

He landed a few TV roles (Cold Case, the short-lived series Eastwick), but it was with Glee that he became an instant hit singing lead in an all-male a capella version of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” The opportunity is something that the actor, who is straight, doesn’t take lightly.

“It’s incredibly important to me,” he says. “As an actor, you’re always worried that you’re going to be stuck doing ancillary things, like the boyfriend or the cop or the football coach or something. You just hope for something that you feel has some kind of significance. This would be one of those things that has a great amount of value to me personally and, I think, to a greater community.”

As for his rising fame, he’s cautious to use the word “celebrity”(although the screaming fans in Fort Worth on Saturday would argue otherwise). But he’s preparing himself for it.

“Everybody wants to know who you are, which is a very unfair position to be in because all of us are trying to figure that out on a consistent basis,” he says. “So it really forces you to evaluate and analyze yourself. It’s really forced me into really trying to solidify myself because if people are paying attention, it’s important to step up to the plate and make sure that [I’m] representing something positive.”

Millions of Gleeks can’t be wrong.

New episodes of Glee resume with a special Super Bowl Sunday episode.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 14, 2011.

—  John Wright