Jacob Keith Watson of ‘Chicago’ is no Mr. Cellophane
In “Chicago,” a musical about murder, greed, corruption and fame, Roxie Hart’s clueless husband Amos feels invisible, and rightfully so—even the band ignores him.
But Jacob Keith Watson, the actor who plays him in the musical’s 16th US tour, is far from the sad, inconsequential man that he portrays. Night after night, he’s been giving performances that critics have found difficult to ignore.
It began on his very first night as Amos back in October, at the tour’s opening show at Saenger Theatre in New Orleans.
“The first review that came out reserved the best praise for you, did you know that?” a journalist asked him the next day at a suite lounge in the theater. “The words that were used for you were … sweet panache.” “Endearing” was another.
Watson blushed, both pleased and embarrassed. “Oh! I’ll take that, that’s great.”
And as the show moved from city to city, the positive reviews for his portrayal of Mr. Cellophane kept coming.
In Nashville: “Noteworthy,” “one of the best” and, again, “endearing.” In San Francisco: “Sublimely dopey” and “polished.”
It’s Manila’s turn. For the next three weeks, Watson will be charming Filipino audiences during “Chicago’s” limited season at The Theatre at Solaire.
Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, David Atkins Enterprises and Concertus Manila—the same group that brought “Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats,” “Mamma Mia” and “Wicked” to Manila—are bringing the show here.
Watson, who is from Arkansas and who made his Broadway debut in “Violet” earlier this year, had originally auditioned for the Broadway production of “Chicago.” “The director Walter Bobby wasn’t in the callbacks. They sent him my audition tape and they asked me to do the tour instead of the Broadway production so I took it.”
Many believe he was born to play the role. “People were always like, ‘You should play that,’ ‘You’d be a great Amos.’”
And when we joked that it wasn’t exactly a compliment, he laughed and said, “I know, right? Exactly. He’s so sad, really, am I that sad a person?”
But Watson understands why people have a soft spot for Amos. “Everyone’s supposed to feel for him because he’s the only truth in the show. Everyone else is lying. He looks stupid because he’s telling the truth.”
Watson’s Amos has another thing going for him—his vocal power. Watson is an award-winning singer, and his version of Amos’ anthem “Mister Cellophane” is something to remember.
Super spoke to Watson in New Orleans the day after his first performance as Amos, and he talked about his character, working with Broadway veterans, playing football in Arkansas and his dream roles.
In which ways can you relate to Amos?
I think everybody knows how it feels to be overlooked at some point. Maybe not every single day of your life, but everyone has felt that someone didn’t notice them. Or everyone knows that feeling. I just think he’s such a beautiful little character because of that. Because he recognizes it and knows it, but he still keeps a smile on his face, he still keeps working hard to do the right thing at all times when everyone around him is doing the wrong thing and lying through their teeth.
Is it true you learned the show in three weeks?
In less than that. I got married on Sept. 20, I started rehearsals on Sept. 24. We rehearsed for a week and a half in New York, and then we came down here.
You’re new to the show—was it daunting to come in and work with veterans?
I don’t know. I think when I wasn’t in the room with them, when I was getting ready to do the rehearsals, I think it was intimidating. But once you meet all of these people, they want to support you so much and make sure that you are wonderful. And so with their expertise, you just want to soak it all up, not only for this show, but as actors and as theater artists, they’re all amazing and they’ve all done so much, so you just want to soak it up from them, not only for the show but for the rest of your career. You just want to hold on to everything that these people are telling you.
What have you learned from them so far?
Commitment, focus. When it’s time to work, they all work. And they know the show in and out, like they’ve done it 4,000 times, and some of them have. I strive to feel like I’ve done it 4,000 times on my first time. You want to be that comfortable so you can just kind of live onstage. They’re wonderful.
Do you reference some of the actors who have played Amos before?
Yes. Joel Grey, he is a hero. The original. And the original original Barney (Martin) from the ’70s production. And then Chris Fitzgerald, who most recently was in the Broadway production as Amos. He’s currently playing Billy, he’s the first actor to play both on Broadway. He’s incredible. He’s a hero of mine. All those guys, they bring something special, almost dark but beautiful, to the character. He’s such a small character, there’s not a whole lot there. My stage manager jokes with me, “It’s just good writing, it’s amazing writing.” And it is. You just get out of its way, it’s just great writing.
Have you been in the audience of “Chicago”?
I only saw it once, the afternoon “Violet” closed. I went and saw the performance of “Chicago” that night. One of my friends was in the ensemble of the show (on Broadway), and that’s where I met Bianca (Marroquin, who plays Roxie) for the first time. She was doing the show, and we went and had a drink afterwards.
When did you realize you wanted to perform?
Probably in junior year of high school. I didn’t grow up doing it. I grew up playing football. My dad was a football coach for a long time.
So how did you make the transition?
(Laughs.) I think it was freshman year of high school, I auditioned for the musical “Into The Woods,” and I did it just for fun. I was the wolf, it was a bass role and I am not a bass, I’m a tenor, so that was terrible, it was awful. But I did it anyway. I had fun. Then the choir teacher, who was the musical director for the show, was like, “You should join choir, you should audition for choir,” so I auditioned. I got in sophomore year, and then junior year I saw a national tour production of “Les Mis,” and that’s when I was like, “That’s what I wanna do.” Valjean’s the dream role.
How many trophies for singing do you have?
I did the Lotte Lenya Competition, I got second place in that, which is considered the winner. And then I got first place in the NATS, which is the National Association of Teachers of Singing. They did a national musical theater competition, and I got first place in that two years ago; and then I was in the finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Competition, the regional finals for that. So you know, a handful of decent ones. The Lotte Lenya is something I’m very proud of. I love the Kurt Weill Foundation, I love those people. That’s something I’m very, very proud of.
And how many football trophies do you have?
(Laughs.) I was all-conference, and we won state championship in my sophomore year of high school. I’m just too short to be anything good, but I worked as hard as I could.
How does your dad feel about your transition from football to theater?
He loves it. Because I’m happy. He loves the show. It’s not something they grew up with at all.
Was he into music at all?
Rock music. And Christian music, and that’s about it.
What are your dream roles?
I can tell you a handful. One of them is Jean Valjean, “Les Mis,” of course. This one will probably never happen, but I want to play George in “Sunday in the Park with George” by Stephen Soundheim. I love that show so much. There’s some other stuff, but those are my Top 2.
Is an acting trophy in the plan?
Umm, you know, like I said with the reviews, you kinda do what you do and people recognize you for it, that’s great. That just kinda comes with it, that’s the icing on the cake. But you can’t expect it, you can’t work toward that, you know what I mean? Does that make sense? You just work toward being the best theater artist and actor you can be.
“Chicago” runs until Dec. 21 at The Theatre at Solaire Resort and Casino. Ticket prices range from P1,750 to P7,500. Call TicketWorld at tel. no. 8999999 or visit www.ticketworld.com.ph.
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