He’s best known to Australian theatregoers as the actor who took on the role of Johnny Castle in the 2015 national tour of Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story Onstage. But the fact of the matter is that Kurt Phelan is far more accomplished, both on and off the stage, than you may have thought.
A NIDA graduate, Phelan has worked as an actor, a singer, a dancer, a choreographer, a host and a writer. He has a slew of screen and theatre credits to his name, as both an actor and choreographer, and he’s written full-length plays and toured the country with his self-penned cabaret shows, Louder than words and Cheap as chips.
On 17 August, Phelan will take to the stage at Slide in Sydney with Phelan Groovy, his latest show, which we’re told is an hour of ‘unabashed laughter and music that doesn’t take itself too seriously and asks its audience to do the same’. Musically, it’s a mix of everything from ‘Farnsy’ to Lorde, to numbers drawn from music theatre. The show premiered at The Butterfly Club in Melbourne earlier in the year and has since visited Perth and Adelaide, and will also stop for two nights in Canberra just after the Sydney engagement.
But it’s not only Australians who’ve had the opportunity to experience the show. Phelan was actually invited to perform in New York City at the world-famous Don’t Tell Mama – a venue that, over its 34-year history, has hosted some of the world’s greatest live performers including Joan Rivers, Bette Midler, Chita Rivera, Kathy Griffin, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Liza Minelli.
Talking to Theatre People about his upcoming Sydney engagement, Phelan says the show has received a huge reception, but no single audience has responded as strongly as those who attended his first show in New York City.
“People were just losing it,” he says.
“What was really excellent too was I had heaps of people review and blog about it, and I had one reviewer who completely hated it and said, ‘How dare he make cabaret funny! Cabaret should be serious; he should take this art form seriously’.
“He just thought that I should sing boring jazz songs and stand at a piano and drink a martini, and my whole thing about doing this show is I want to be [as] far away from that as possible!”
So, for Phelan, that response was a sign he was on the right track.
Last November, Phelan completed the Australian tour of Dirty Dancing, a significant box office success that won the young actor more than a few fans. After wrapping up the tour, he holidayed in Thailand, and enjoyed some time for much-needed recovery.
“I had a pretty serious injury. I broke three ribs off the cartilage on my sternum, and I didn’t really take enough time off during the show to have it heal because I just wanted to get back into it,” Phelan says. “So, I really did spend about three months getting back to normal and getting back into auditions.”
And how was it that Phelan Groovy came about?
“I really have always loved cabaret; I love the intimacy and I love the way it happens and the way people respond to it, and I just thought I spent so much time last year introducing myself in a big way to Australia as this dark, sullen, leather-clad womaniser, and I wanted to be me and almost thank people for their support… and say, ‘Just remember there’s actually a pretty cheeky ratbag underneath all these characters that I play’,” Phelan explains.
“I’m one of those people, as an actor, that is never asked to ever do anything close to myself. I’ve always been cast as the opposite… I’m always the serious, dark, brooding love interest or the unassuming best friend who turns out to be the serial killer. It is what it is, but this is a great opportunity to scratch my itch and have a bloody good time and heaps of fun, but also to introduce people to me as a human and remind them that there is a person underneath what they see on stage, I suppose.”
In fact, Phelan adds: “They might find that they find out a little bit too much!”
Talking about the strong response to the show from Australian audiences, he says, “It’s a big shock for a lot of people, I think, because I don’t think a lot of people thought I could sing as well as I can.
“Singing has always been something I’ve worked really hard on and loved doing, but when you dance on stage, people just assume you can’t sing.”
There’s one type of audience response Phelan particularly enjoys.
“The thing that gives me a real kick is when the husbands or the brothers or the boyfriends that have been dragged along come up to me and say, ‘I never knew that I would actually enjoy a cabaret show! This is hilarious’,” he says.
“I think people assume that cabaret… is necessarily going to be soft and boring and for the ladies, but that’s not what I’m about!”
So, what is it that Phelan most enjoys about the show?
“It’s… the fact that people feel like they’re in my lounge room, and we’re just having a party,” he says.
“The world’s a very serious place, and I really enjoy people having a great time and forgetting about what’s happening outside.”
SYDNEY SHOW DETAILS
Date: Wednesday 17 August
Time: 7pm dinner/ 8pm show
Venue: Slide, 41 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst
Cost: 3 Course Dinner & Show $89pp (groups $80), $44 show only
Bookings: slide.com.au or (02) 8915 1899
CANBERRA SHOW DETAILS
Dates: Friday 19 and Saturday 20 August
Time: 7pm dinner/8:30pm show
Venue: Teatro Vivaldi Restaurant, ANU Arts Centre, University Avenue, Canberra
Cost: Dinner & show – $70 to $90, Show only – $30 – $50
Bookings: vivaldirestaurant.com.au or (02) 6257 2718