Actor/singer Shuler Hensley makes his every role larger than life. With his resounding bass-baritone singing voice and imposing, 6-foot-3-inch build, he comfortably fills out the villains of stage and screen. He twice stepped into the 4-inch heels of Frankenstein and won a Tony Award as the menacing Jud Fry in Broadway's acclaimed 2002 revival of Oklahoma!. He worked opposite Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma! as well as Van Helsing. "He's the kind of person who's so nice, you hope they do well," Hensley says of the mega-celeb. "You can't even be jealous of him."
Hensley plays the central character of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the Alliance Theatre's new supernatural musical making its world premiere on April 4. With a book by best-selling novelist Stephen King, music and lyrics by John Mellencamp, and music direction from super-producer T Bone Burnett, Ghost Brothers serves both as Hensley's high-profile introduction and overdue homecoming to Atlanta.
Hensley was raised in Marietta by Iris Antley Hensley, artistic director of Cobb County's Georgia Ballet. "My first experience on stage was playing Fritz in The Nutcracker. He's the child villain who grabs the Nutcracker and breaks it," explains Hensley. But apart from a week with the Broadway tour of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein musical, Hensley has never performed in Atlanta.
The living share the stage with the dead in Ghost Brothers, which involves a 40-year-old crime in a small Louisiana town, and its repercussions in the present day. Hensley plays Joe McCandless, who witnessed the crime as a child and agonizes over his secrets as an adult. Trained as an opera singer, Hensley partly sought the Ghost Brothers role to gain proficiency in the blues and country musical styles that anchor the show. "My mom stressed that a classical foundation was the best way to start [in music], but this genre is something I grew up with," Hensley says. "My family's from North Georgia originally, and 'porch song singing' is in my roots."
In the upcoming year, Hensley plans to perform his one-man concert Bad Boys of Broadway and will appear on the big screen as "Fungus Bob" in the horror film Odd Thomas. In the long term he hopes to move his family from New York and make Atlanta his base for performing nationally. Hensley says, "My goal as an actor for the rest of my life is to live up to the compliment Mel Brooks gave me. On the opening night of Young Frankenstein, he stuck his head into my dressing room and told me, 'Ya didn't suck!'"
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