As Last-minute Victor/Victoria Co-star, Cleveland Rocks

The actor's nightmare is to step onstage and suddenly realize he's in a show he's never rehearsed, with everyone looking to him to say the next line. The producer's nightmare is to get a call from an actor in a leading role saying he's unable to get to the theater -- and there's no understudy ready to go on for that night's performance.

When Uptown Players actor Paul Taylor threw his back out on Saturday, he alerted producer Craig Lynch. Taylor plays one of the leads, a gay French nightclub owner named Toddy, in the production of the musical Victor/Victoria now running at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. He doesn't have an understudy.

Saturday's performance was canceled, but with Sunday's matinee a near sellout and two more weekends left in the run, the company went into crisis management mode. Stage manager Cathy O'Neal called her friend and frequent Uptown star B.J. Cleveland to tell him about the situation, to which he responded, "Do I need to grab a script?"

Cleveland says he was joking, but that's exactly what O'Neal had in mind. Cleveland, who'd spent Saturday morning recording Christmas carols for a holiday CD as a sub for another singer, and the afternoon painting scenery for a church play his sister is doing, high-tailed it to Kalita. Director Cheryl Denson led him through a four-hour rehearsal with the four other leads in the show -- Ashley P. Gonzales, Shane Peterman, Whitney Hennen and Gregory Hullett.

Performed on a massive two-story revolving set with 13 doors, Victor/Victoria, based on the 1982 movie by Blake Edwards (with music by Henry Mancini), is a huge, complicated, fast-moving French farce. The Toddy role involves singing, dancing, running up and down stairs and in and out of all those doors, plus hitting punch lines that put the button on key scenes. At the finale, Toddy appears in drag for a full-company production number.

Cleveland wasn't familiar with the script or the music, he says, and had only seen the show once years ago when Dallas Summer Musicals brought in a road tour starring 1970s pop singer Toni Tennille. After learning the basic blocking and music cues Saturday night, Cleveland headed home to Arlington to study lines and rest up for the Sunday matinee.

Then came the phone call that would test the old "show must go on" maxim to the limit. Early Sunday morning, B.J. Cleveland's father, Bob Cleveland, passed away at the age of 67.

The actor wouldn't consider backing out of his commitment to Uptown Players. He spent Sunday morning making funeral arrangements and calling family members. Word got around quickly via text messages and Facebook about what was happening. Friends and fans of the actor started showing up at Kalita just past noon to show support and, as actor Paul J. Williams put it, "just to hug his neck and say we love him."

At 2 p.m., the curtain went up on Victor/Victoria to a nearly full house. Cleveland did the show with script in hand, improvising asides to the audience that got bigger laughs than the jokes in the show. For "You and Me," a soft-shoe duet between leading lady Victoria (Gonzales) and Toddy, Cleveland let Gonzales dance alone, saying, "You take it, sister, I didn't learn this part." The audience roared.

No one asked for a refund, said Lynch. Nobody walked out when they learned of the casting substitution. Uptown even sold more season subscriptions during intermission than they'd expected for a Sunday matinee, Lynch said.

At the end of the show, the audience stood and cheered for Cleveland and the cast. Actors, backstage crew, patrons and even a couple of critics lingered in the lobby after the curtain call to embrace the actor and express condolences. There were lots of tears and hugs. "Never in my entire career have I been prouder to be an actor," wrote cast member Mark Oristano on Facebook after the show.

How was Cleveland able to compartmentalize, to perform broad comedy under pressure and after such a devastating personal loss? "Actors are supposed to be in the moment when they're onstage," Cleveland said after the show. "With something like this, you just get in the moment and steamroll through it."

He said he'll spend the next few days dealing with his father's funeral. Depending on whether Taylor can return to the show, Cleveland will stay on call for Friday night, the next performance of Victor/Victoria.

And get this -- Taylor and Cleveland aren't anywhere near the same size. So how was Cleveland able to get such a good-fitting costume for the show on such short notice? "I happened to have a tuxedo in my car," he said.

Now that's a trouper.

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