FATHER FIGURE: Bill Solo.
Robert Hupp says he was convinced to stage and direct “Children of Eden” not from seeing the production, but from hearing its soundtrack, recorded in 1998 by the cast that performed the play at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse.
The cast included Bill Solo in the chief role of Father — better known as God in the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis, from which the musical’s storyline is derived.
So, obviously Hupp was thrilled when the New York-based actor was available to star in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s version of “Children of Eden,” which concludes Sunday, Jan. 2.
“When we did the request for submissions to the New York agents, his agent submitted him for the role,” Hupp said. “I was very anxious to get to meet him and hear his work first hand.”
But, Solo admits, it was still a role he had to relearn after not performing it for seven years. but the chance to reprise the part in a smaller setting than the Paper Mill Playhouse — where the cast numbered 65 — intrigued him.
“This has been great,” he said a few days before Christmas. “This theater is half the size [of the Paper Mill Playhouse]. I love intimate theater. I wanted to see it staged in a smaller venue, on a smaller scale, with a smaller budget.”
If one sought Solo for a role that would come to him more easily, that would be as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” where he starred on Broadway and in national tours for more than 1,000 performances beginning in the late 1980s. “But even with ‘Les Mis,’ I’d have to have some preparation time,” he said. “At one time, though, I could recall every word and movement.”
The actor, now 56, was born William Loconsolo, but decided “anything over four syllables and with four O’s gets too cumbersome for an actor’s name.” The Worcester, Mass., native took a circuitous route to starting an acting career. That included four years in the Air Force, working in Las Vegas, finishing college, and hanging out on the beach outside of Los Angeles.
“There are people my age, such as Gary Beach, who are doing well on Broadway, but they had an extra 10 or 12 years pounding the streets and learning,” said Solo, admitting that he had to overcome procrastination. At age 31 he moved to New York and, for eight years, mostly heard agents tell him they “didn’t know what role to use you for,” while working as a singing waiter at the now-defunct Applause.
When he was 39, though, an actor with a pop-style singing voice was needed for the plum role in “Les Mis.”
“That changed everything,” he said.
Though he calls New York home, “I’ve probably spent 15 or more years total on the road,” he said. “The result is that I’ve been in all 50 states. I do love being home in New York, but you’ve got to go where the work is.”
In his travels, he played Daddy Warbucks in “Annie” and worked with the late, great Richard Harris in “Camelot.” Solo says Harris “was larger than life, but what I most remember was that he hung out with the cast at Denny’s on Thanksgiving until 5 a.m., then paid for the tab for everybody. … On stage while he performed, nobody moved for three-and-a-half hours. He was holding court. He was a pretty good guy.”
In “Children of Eden,” Solo’s powerful voice barely needs the Rep’s sometimes balky sound system. He gets the show off to a strong start with the song “Let There Be,” but he wishes composer Stephen Schwartz would add more, perhaps a soliloquy, for Father.
Hupp says, “He brings such an authority to the role [of Father] and is just the consummate performer. He’s been a joy to work with and always is 100 percent. It’s been great for me to get to know him and work with him, and great for the audience because his work is so strong. I certainly look forward to having Bill come back and do some other project with us.”
Showtimes for “Children of Eden” are 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, along with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. For tickets, call 378-0405.