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The Rise of the Understudies: Two Booker T. Grads Step into the Lights on Broadway

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It was a good weekend on Broadway for the Booker T. High School Class of '92. Actors Brian J. Gonzales and Cedric Neal, who graduated the same year from Dallas' performing arts magnet school, both stepped into leading roles in big New York shows on a moment's notice.

Gonzales, understudy for Tony winner James Corden in the hit comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, did the show at Sunday's matinee after the actor fell ill. (Corden, a workhorse performer, hadn't missed any other performances.) Neal, understudy for Tony-nominated David Alan Grier in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, performed the role of "Sportin' Life" Friday and Saturday nights while Grier was off.

The image of the unknown understudy finally getting a shot at stardom is the plotline of plenty of plays and movies, from 42nd Street to All About Eve to Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy (now running at Fort Worth's Amphibian Stage). But the idea isn't to steal the role from the star, say Gonzales and Neal, fresh off their weekend of curtain calls on Broadway stages.

"The job is not to look for any glory whatsoever," says Gonzales, who played big roles in musicals and plays at Lyric Stage, Dallas Theater Center and WaterTower Theatre before moving to New York. "Our job is simply to be there in case the person we're covering needs to call out. We're only there as a backup. For a lot of understudies, there's a good chance you may never go on [in the role]. James Corden doesn't miss at all. He's working on a film right now, but he'll come to the theater, do two shows and go and shoot all night. He's quite the machine. I admire his stamina and commitment."

Gonzales was out on his morning walk Sunday when he got a call saying Corden didn't feel well and might not make the Sunday matinee. The decision was made at 2 p.m. that Gonzales would go on at the 3 p.m. performance in the leading role of "Frances Henshall." The character is the servant of two masters (the show is based on that ancient play) and he carries 70 percent of the dialogue while performing nonstop physical comedy. (Gonzales also has the duty of performing a 10-second bit every night, cartwheeling across the stage in a chase scene as Corden's double.)

Before being called in for the main role on Sunday, "my stage manager and I had just done a line-through rehearsal for dialogue purposes. It was good that it timed out like it did," says Gonzales.

The actor even worked in an ad lib at the top of the show, in case any audience members were disappointed that he, not Corden, was performing. In the show, Frances is always begging the audience for food, so patrons sometimes offer the character snacks. "A lady offered me a Snickers bar in the middle of the opening monologue," says Gonzales. "I took it onstage and pretended she had written a note that said, `Dear Mr. Understudy, please give this Snickers to James Corden.' That broke the ice about the fact that I was the understudy. And I got lucky. The audience seemed to be on my side from then on. I got a very good response."

Cedric Neal got booed at his curtain call at Porgy and Bess Saturday night. He says he took that as the ultimate compliment for his performance as the evil drug-dealing pimp, Sportin' Life.

"Mine is a little darker take on the character than David Alan Grier's," says Neal. "He's a comedian by nature so he takes every opportunity to lighten the mood. I'm passionate about bringing the sliminess across. Sportin' Life is the snake in the garden. He's a pimp and a hustler. When I got booed, that was validation. The audience hated him. It was cathartic for me. The curtain call was wild. Oh, my gosh, I got a solo bow before Norm Lewis (Porgy) and the icon, Audra McDonald (Bess). I felt like I was standing in the arms of all my ancestors."

Neal, still a member of the Brierley Acting Company at Dallas Theater Center, is part of the Porgy and Bess ensemble at every performance, playing the "Crab Man." He performed with the company on this year's Tony Awards and is on the cast recording. But his additional duties as Grier's understudy have afforded some tough lessons in what it means to be in a Broadway show.

"I was actually fired from the understudy position when we transferred the show from Boston to New York," says Neal. "They said I was 'too musical.' Then after we opened on Broadway, the stage manager asked if I was interested in being the understudy again. I started to cry and said yes. When you get that call that you're finally going on in the role - whoa. I had to dismiss all ego. My ego wanted to say, 'It's your time to shine.' But that's what got me fired in the first place. Our key word for the show is 'organic.' You keep everything organic. And David had set this character down so well. When I went on, the biggest compliment was that the stage manager who'd fired me said, 'I'm so proud of you.'"

Gonzales and Neal are both enjoying their last few weeks in their respective shows. One Man, Two Guvnors closes September 2. Gonzales will return to Dallas, where his wife, actress Ashley Puckett Gonzales, is due to deliver a baby September 12. The actor says he hopes to get cast in something local that will get him through the holidays, before he and the expanded family move back to Manhattan in early 2013.

Neal has a new gig lined up after Porgy and Bess closes September 23, but he doesn't want to talk about it yet. "Let's just say it'll have a lot of soul," says Neal. "Meanwhile, I'm just fortunate to be in this show where I get to go on every night and share the stage with Audra and Norm Lewis and this beautiful company. The journey of being an understudy has allowed me to experience the most emotional character I've ever had to play."

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