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When your old buddy is Buddy

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When your old buddy is Buddy (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

A face familiar to some local patrons of the arts – the ones with long memories – is currently the centerpiece of a beloved holiday musical extravaganza.

Erik Gratton plays Buddy the Elf, the title character in the national touring production of “Elf: The Musical,” based on the 2003 Will Ferrell movie of the same name. The show is currently in Boston at the Wang Theatre in the Boch Center, running through December 10. After that, “Elf” lands in New York City, where it will play The Theater at Madison Square Garden December 13-29.

But long before he was playing Buddy – nearly two decades ago, in fact - Gratton was bringing some very different characters to life right here in Bangor. In his two years as part of the now-defunct Maine Shakespeare Festival, his roles ran the gamut – from Hamlet to Wilbur the Pig in “Charlotte’s Web.”

(Full disclosure: I too was a part of the late, great MSF back in the day. I was privileged to share the stage with Erik on more than one occasion. You could see it, even back then – his was a very real, very palpable talent. It comes as no surprise to anyone that has worked with him that he has made a life in the theater.)

Despite a wildly busy travel schedule, Erik was able to find a few minutes to chat. As the tour pulled into Boston, we spoke about what it was like to land a role like Buddy and what it means to play him (along with a jaunt down memory lane recalling his time in Bangor).

“I saw the first breakdown [for the part] back in April or May,” said Gratton. “But I didn’t submit until July. I haven’t done a lot of musicals, so I assumed it wasn’t for me. But when I saw the listing – someone over six feet tall, background in physical comedy and clowning – I said to myself ‘They’re looking for me.’”

Despite Buddy not being a typical role for him, Gratton reached out to his agent to submit for the part, only to find out that said agent had already done so. Waves of auditions followed.

“I pretty much forgot about it. Then a month later, I get called in to audition. I get called back, audition again. Another one, this time with some of the creative team. A little later, I get the offer. It was about six weeks from submission to getting the gig.”

What followed was one of the more exhaustive rehearsal experiences of Gratton’s career. And he was one of the few coming into the show without previous experience – only five members of the ensemble hadn’t toured with a previous iteration of the show and most of the creative teams behind the production also returned. There was little time to get to where he needed to be.

“It was an intense rehearsal process,” he said. “It was three weeks from first rehearsal to first preview. It was constant eight-hour days; it was exhausting, because Buddy spends basically the whole show onstage.

“I came in off book and had been doing a lot of work with a vocal coach; I was going to have to hit some high notes while running and jumping and other really physical stuff. I put in far more pre-rehearsal work for this show than for anything else I’ve done in my career.”

Now, Gratton’s no stranger to touring, having spent some time working as a pastry chef for assorted rock bands. But “Elf: The Musical” is a different beast altogether.

“It’s every day,” he said. “Singing 13 songs – or 26 on a two-show day – is hard work. Physically, I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired. And I love it. I’m working with an amazing group of people and playing a character that’s always happy. Buddy always smiles and now so do I.”

When taking on a character like Buddy, one that is deeply loved by audiences, there’s a degree of real responsibility that goes into bringing him to life.

“There are probably a dozen jokes from the movie that are recreated in the show,” said Gratton. “It’s all about the essence of Buddy – the story is the same. I’ve done some things, fooled around and made it my own. There are some similarities, but I’m not imitating Will Ferrell; I had some trepidation about that, but people have given me a lot of latitude. It’s one of the lessons I took from “Hamlet” – I treat every role like I’m the first person to play it, which helps me avoid getting hung up by the weight of what came before.”

When asked what it means to be such a big part of people’s holiday experiences, Gratton expressed real joy and gratitude for the opportunity.

“People come to these shows dressed up,” he said. “They say lines with you. During one of our Toronto shows, there was a little girl about six rows back. Every time I came onstage, she would yell ‘Hi, Buddy!’ That’s the kind of affection we’re talking about. It’s an important movie to people and an important time. It’s a big responsibility; these nights are precious and people choose to spend them with us.”

And of course, we chatted a little about the MSF days and his memories of that time.

“I loved my time in Bangor. That’s where I learned to play golf. I had my first beer. Some of the most memorable performances of my life happened there. There was a run of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged” in the pouring rain that was amazing. That night where everything went wrong in “Henry IV, Part I” – that night was ridiculous and will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

(Note: He’s not lying. I was in that one and can confirm that EVERYTHING went wrong.)

“I did seven shows there while I was in grad school,” he continued. “That was when I was learning what kind of actor I wanted to be. It was my first shot at broad comedy, which has become my life. I owe so much to PTC. I learned to act there.”

It’s a big role and a big deal – and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. My buddy is Buddy … and now I’m the one who can’t stop smiling.

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