Stage & Dance

In coming home, veteran actor also returns to stage

Stephen Currens is having about as stealthy a stage homecoming as a successful stage veteran can.

Currens has three weekends left of playing Henry, one of the actors who helps El Gallo stage an abduction of Louisa in Actors Guild of Lexington's production of The Fantasticks. On opening night, even veteran theatergoers were asking, "Who is this guy?" while applauding his extroverted performance.

Currens is a 1971 Lafayette High School graduate who went to the University of Kentucky, where he came up with the idea for his biggest claim to fame: Gorey Stories, a musical based on the macabre stories and illustrations of Edward Gorey.

"I was visiting with a friend over in the student ghetto at Transylvania Park," Currens recalls over a cappuccino at Common Grounds. "She had this Gorey anthology that she thought I might be interested in. I loved the theatricality of it and thought, 'I could make an adaptation of this.'"

Through high school, under the direction of legendary Lafayette theater director Thelma Beeler, Currens explored acting and even dabbled in directing and writing. When he got his big idea, he was ready to transform it into a big show.

Gorey Stories, with music by fellow UK student David Aldrich, was first presented in a one-act version on the Guignol Theatre stage during an all-night theater festival. It went so well, it was presented the next year, in 1974, in a full production at UK.

Currens thought he had a successful product and decided it was time to take it to New York. He knocked on a lot of doors and got a lot of weird looks. One composer liked the idea but wanted to write new music. Currens balked, wanting to stay loyal to Aldrich, who shared his artistic vision for the show.

Finally, at the WPA Theatre in New York, he met Howard Ashman, the theater's artistic director, who would go on to write Little Shop of Horrors and the songs for the Disney films The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast with Alan Menken.

"He looked at it for 15 minutes and said, 'I'll do it,'" Currens says. "I suddenly got panicky: 'Somebody wants to do my show. Maybe I shouldn't let them.'"

Currens let the WPA Theatre present Gorey Stories in a highly successful off-Broadway production that received rave reviews from critics including The New York Times' Frank Rich.

When Gorey and his associates wanted to move the show to Broadway, Currens was uneasy. It didn't seem like a good fit, and it ended up running into bad luck. Gorey Stories opened on Broadway in the midst of a newspaper strike, so reviewing the show was left to television critics, who weren't kind. One called it "collegiate," "which, of course, it was," Currens says.

But the critic didn't intend that word as a compliment.

By the time newspaper scribes returned to work, the show had closed.

Gorey Stories, though, has enjoyed a successful life at theaters around the country, including a well-received 2006 revival in Los Angeles.

Even as Gorey Stories was having its run, Currens was pursuing other projects. He wrote and acted in an off-Broadway one-man show called Pharmaceuticals. He also appeared in the original off-Broadway production of Greater Tuna, replacing Michael Jeter.

Currens continued to write, and he returned to acting and even to UK, from which he graduated in 1988 and where he performed in a production of Agatha Christie's Murder After Hours.

The Internet has made it possible for Currens to make Kentucky his home again while pursuing work on the coasts. He lives in Versailles, where he cares for his ailing mother and is working on a new musical with Fantasticks musical director John LaMar Cole.

Auditioning for The Fantasticks was part of Currens' desire to get back into acting and forge a relationship with Actors Guild of Lexington.

"Acting has always been my first love," Currens says. "I started acting in (Lexington) Children's Theatre projects when I was a kid.

"I have always wanted to be in The Fantasticks because it's the quintessential American musical, and I wanted to work with Julieanne," he says, referring to Fantasticks director Julieanne Pogue, a former UK classmate.

"While I was living in New York and Los Angeles, I dreamed of being able to come home to Kentucky," Currens says.

That dream is coming true with a nice little résumé and a desire to make the local theater scene his home.

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