When Wesley Taylor wanted a break from the high-pressure New York theater scene, he didn’t jet off to an island paradise or a grand European city. He made his escape to Shirlington, Va. — home of Signature Theatre, where the Broadway veteran (“The Addams Family,” “Rock of Ages”) and actor on NBC’s “Smash” is playing the Emcee in “Cabaret,” a gig he considers “a nice work vacation.”
“New York can be maddening and sometimes suffocating, and sometimes I think it’s really important to get out of town and do a show for me,” the 28-year-old Taylor says. “I don’t get many opportunities to be the star in New York at this point in my career, and [here] I can be the lead. And I can work and fail and fall on my face and grow as an actor.”
In “Cabaret,” the Emcee is the show’s unrestrained id and witness to the downfalls of the characters Sally Bowles (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and Cliff (Gregory Wooddell) in 1930s Berlin. Dressed in black lederhosen, the Emcee engages the audience with the same cheeky flirtation he bestows upon the dancers of the Kit Kat Klub.
Once “Cabaret” finishes its run, the vacation is over: Taylor will be back in New York to play Bill Gates in the musical “Nerds” and Luis Carruthers in “American Psycho,” both in development for Broadway.
Until then, Taylor will be caking on the rouge and dancing in heels. He talked to The Washington Post about what the role means to him.
Taylor was intimidated by the role: “They’re big shoes to fill. Joel Grey and Alan Cumming, part of why they’re icons is because of their portrayals of this character. . . . I worshiped Alan Cumming’s performance. Joel Grey’s was amazing, but Alan Cumming sort of reinvented that character in a way that knocked me over.”
But he has made the character his own: “Because of my youth and energy and physical agility, this is the most physically active the Emcee has ever been, which is fun. I think I’m also making him more grotesque, and a little darker, and a little more sneering and ghastly and, I guess, leering.”
It’s the most physically strenuous role Taylor has ever played: “I have to take two Epsom salt baths a day. I’m stretching all day long. I wake up, I work out all morning, I have protein every hour. I have a humidifier in my bedroom and dressing room. Allergies in this town are terrible. It’s very hard to do all the singing and screaming and growling that I do and keep a healthy voice eight times a week.”
It’s his first role in high heels, too: “I’m already getting much better at being in them. The first day I was walking around like an animal, like a linebacker. I could probably drag out with the best of them now.”
Taylor does his own makeup: “It takes 25 minutes. It’s such a process. I’ve learned a lot from the ladies on skin care — it’s just beating up my face. I start with some primer and make sure it sticks, even though it doesn’t stick, and I reapply, like, every other scene. . . . I do red around the eyes, red eyelids and highlight the lines to look drugged out and sleep-deprived and kind of heroin chic. A lot of black around the eyes, a lot of eyeliner, a lot of mascara, a lot of piercing eyes — eye central.”
But he has the right look for the role, innately: “There’s something about my essence, and I wish it weren’t so. I try to force artificial smiles and think about puppies and unicorns and glitter, but . . . I feel like my default is darkness. So for a show like this, I found my match. I don’t have to worry about lifting my head up and making sure that I’m open to positivity. I can make it really dark, and it works. I can pierce and stare into people’s souls.”
The audience members Taylor flirts with are not of his choosing: “I don’t have time to scope the audience. I’m seeing them for the first time as I’m singing to them. So I have to do the pelvic thrust every night to Table L because that table gets lit up.”
When the actor is in New York, he mostly works on new musicals, but “Cabaret” is a welcome break: “When you go to rehearsal [for a new musical], and every single morning you get new pages and you’re constantly getting changes and they’re cutting this song and adding this song in preview — it’s so nice to do a show that has been tried and tested and true, and you know it works. It’s a masterpiece. You know this joke is going to land.”
The brilliance of “Cabaret,” too, is in its ever-more-relevant social message: “That’s sort of the whole lesson with Sally Bowles and Cliff — ‘It’s politics, what does that have to do with us? What does that have to do with my life?’ . . . I think that will never go away, this notion that — whether it be feminism, whether it be gay rights, whether it be what’s happening with the African American community right now — intolerance, as we’re seeing it, is not just a Holocaust thing.”
“Cabaret” Through June 28 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets: $40 to $99. 703-573-7328. www.signature-theatre.org.