Centreville When Kevin Clay was still in elementary school, he dazzled local audiences in the title role of Th
e Alliance Theatre’s production of “Oliver!” He continued garnering rave reviews at Westfield High, playing the leads in shows including Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
So those who know him well aren’t surprised at all that this now 24-year-old is actually making a living in the theater. He’s in the national tour of “The Book of Mormon” and can currently be seen at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., now through Nov. 19, in yet another leading role – this time, as Elder Price.
“It’s good to be back home,” said Clay last Friday. “I started as an ensemble player in this show in October 2015; and for the past six months, I was the Elder Smith standby, ready to perform if ever the lead couldn’t. But starting on Oct. 24, I got to do it for real.”
After graduating from Westfield in 2011, Clay attended Penn State, obtaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater in 2015. While there, he also sang with the university’s a cappella group, The Statesmen – even performing on “The Today Show,” in his sophomore year.
“It was a really fun time,” said Clay. “I also did ‘Guys and Dolls’ again [as he did at Westfield], as well as ‘John and Jen,’ a small, two-person musical. It was nice to work on a personal-feeling project. When it’s just you and one other actor, it really connects you to the show.”
His big break came in his senior year when he and others did an acting showcase, performing in front of casting people, agents and managers. Clay did a song called, “She Likes Basketball,” from the musical, “Promises, Promises,” and a casting director from “The Book of Mormon” liked it and asked him to audition for that show.
“I thought she’d add my name to a list and I might hear from them in a year or two,” said Clay. “But two months later, they called to say, ‘We have a spot opening up in our national tour and we’d like to bring you back in to audition.’”
“That was my first, big, real audition out of school, trying to go from school to career,” he continued. “I went to New York, stayed on friends’ couches and auditioned four times in one week. It was speaking and dancing — to both tap and hip-hop combinations.”
Being able to work well with others and maintain a good attitude are also important attributes, said Clay. “They want goodhearted people because many of them stay with the show for years,” he said. “So you want them to be friendly because it’s a family environment; and on the road, we’re often all each other has. And the people in this show are awesome; whether you want to spend time with them or be by yourself, they’re a really good group.”
After auditioning, he returned home to Centreville, but not for long. Even before he heard back from the show, Clay had decided to take his own leap of faith and commit to trying to make it as a professional actor. He told his parents, “I’m going to go to New York, be in the heart of things and give it a try.” He had no job, but they were supportive.
Then on Sept. 1, 2015, while in his car driving to New York, he officially got the call that “The Book of Mormon” wanted him. “They asked, ‘Are you available, the end of October?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely,’” said Clay. “I was beyond thrilled, and it was nice to know I had time to hang out in the city, see friends and some Broadway shows [before starting work].”
He and another castmate joined the tour at the same time, so he and Clay rehearsed together and didn’t have to be newcomers alone. Their first performance as Mormon missionaries, or elders, was in Providence, R.I. Initially, said Clay, “You just want to get through the show and be as perfect as possible. I didn’t feel 100-percent confident until probably after a good month of performing.”
Since then, the tour has performed all over the U.S. and part of Canada. And Clay says some of his best memories were when they were in Chicago, seven or eight months after he’d joined. “We were there seven weeks, and a couple other shows were there at the same time, so we got to hang out with the other casts,” he said.
The irreverent musical also went to Salt Lake City – and audiences there loved it. “They knew what the show was about, beforehand,” said Clay. “And knowing Mormon culture, they understood all our jokes and saw the heart behind them. Our show isn’t meant to attack Mormonism; it’s simply using it as one, specific example to serve the bigger message that faith is a positive force.”
He describes his character, Elder Price, as “the perfect, Mormon missionary – the definition of clean, precise and friendly. But at the same time, overly confident. He’s never had any real hurdles in his life. Everything’s been a steady climb for him – a happy family and strong religion – so he believes his mission to Africa will be just as smooth and the greatest time in his life. So it’s fun to see him come face-to-face with the true reality of the world, and the show’s about his process to adapt.”
Clay loves his role and has wanted to play it since his freshman year of college when the soundtrack first came out. “It’s fun to be such a dynamic character with many over-the-top elements,” he said. “But I also get to bring a lot of myself to the character and really play him earnestly. Throughout the show, he becomes more and more sensitive to the people around him, instead of thinking about his own goals and success.”
However, it’s not Clay’s first time performing at The Kennedy Center. He did so during Cappies galas as a junior and senior in high school; and as a sophomore, he was in a show there called “Broadway: Three Generations,” to open the newly renovated Eisenhower Auditorium.
So returning there now, as a professional, “feels right,” he said. “And it was so serendipitous that my first, official week as Elder Price was at The Kennedy Center, in front of family and friends, and where I have so many special memories. It was amazing timing, and I’m excited to make this show my own. I’m looking forward to trying some more acting choices, and I now feel like I know this show, inside and out.”
In November, the tour heads to Florida, and that’s fine with Clay. “I like being on the road, and this is the time in my life to do it,” he said. “I love traveling all over and having stories from lots of different places. It’s an amazing feeling to wake up in the morning and realize I’m going to perform that night in the national tour of ‘The Book of Mormon’ in one of my favorite roles currently in theater.”