By Ken Brostow
Do nice guys always finish last?
Not in Jeffrey M. Wright’s case. The cliché doesn’t apply to him. A very popular entertainer here in St. Louis, his stellar reputation as an actor, singer, cabaret performer and emcee has spread to other cities as well.
By day, Jeff works as a physical therapist and in business development. But when dusk falls, he’s singing or acting, or both.
Jason Graae, an LA-based singer/actor, hears in Jeff “…the voice of an Angel.” But adds that Jeff also has “the smile of a Devil.”
On the other coast, NYC-based singer-songwriter Lina Koutrakos described Jeff as “music’s contemporary ‘matinee idol,’ …He is heart, voice, looks and very much his own man…”
Jeff as Nathan Detroit in KTG’s “Guys and Dolls.”For the past 20 years, Jeff has worked with Stray Dog Theatre, New Line Theatre, Kirkwood Theatre Guild and others in St. Louis. His musical roles have included the famous gamblers Nathan Detroit and Nicky Arnstein, and run the gamut between comical, from Elijah Whitney in “Anything Goes,” to dramatic, as Tateh, the Jewish immigrant father, in “Ragtime.”
He’s amassed more than 50 theatrical credits, and about 30 cabaret appearances.
His cabaret performances have branched out to New York City.
“My New York debut was in May of 2015 at 54 Below in ‘The Music of Alex Rybeck.’ Since then, I’ve been fortunate to return several times to appear in concerts at other venues including The Metropolitan Room, the Iridium on Broadway and the Laurie Beechman Theatre,” he said.
A recent autobiographical cabaret, “The 40s – Theirs and Mine,” included anecdotes about turning the big 40 milestone and songs from the 1940s, reflecting his broad musical interests.
In September, he is headed back to be featured in The Concert Across America to End Gun Violence at a well-known jazz/cabaret club called Don’t Tell Mama.
“I’ve attended shows there, but it will be a new performance venue for me, so I’m especially excited about that,” he said.
Tina Farmer of KDHX noted that his voice “wavers between silky smooth and slightly gritty.” That’s why he can cover both American Songbook standards and rock ‘n roll anthems – moving effortlessly between “Sentimental Journey” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
As the quintessential “people person,” his art, his job, his recreational time—all revolve around people. He works to heal people through physical therapy, and then entertains them socially through his devotion to theater.
This summer, he has been playing a colorful character in the musical comedy “The Robber Bridegroom,” which is ending its three-week run at Stray Dog Theatre. The play has been a joyful homecoming for Jeff.
“This is a hilarious, rowdy, Southern farce. It’s full of fantastic bluegrass music, and Stray Dog’s production is a rare opportunity to see this lesser-known, but very fun show. The cast and production team are awesome, and I really think the audience is going to have a great time!” he said.
“Since I grew up in the South and I love country/bluegrass music — my first album, besides Sesame Street and other kids’ stuff, was Kenny Rogers’s ‘The Gambler.’ I’m having lots of fun with it!” he said.
For more information, visit his website, www.jeffreymwright.com
Kimi Short, Jeffrey M. Wright and Ryan Scott Foizey in “Next to Normal” at New Line Theatre
Here are Jeff’s answers to our Take Ten Q&A:
1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?“I was always fascinated with the idea of being an actor/entertainer, even from a very young age, but there were not a lot of opportunities to explore this in my schools or hometown (Little Rock, Ark.).In high school, I remember attending the annual school play as a freshman and thinking I would like to do that as an upperclassman. I volunteered for stage crew of ‘The Sting’ as a sophomore, with the idea that I would get to know some of the theatre crowd better, as preparation to audition the following year. Unfortunately, after that show, the drama department folded for my junior and senior year because the volunteer director for the program retired, so I did not get that chance.”
“I was heavily involved in athletics throughout grade school and high school, and many different organizations in college, so my plate was pretty full of extra-curricular activities that did not include performing. Once I graduated from college and got into the work force, I decided I really did want to pursue the arts in my spare time.
“I didn’t know the first thing about how to do this, but a friend took me under his wing in 1998 and encouraged me to audition for a summer musical with Studio J Productions. He told me that ‘they always need guys’ and if I could sing, there was a good chance I would be cast. I had never attended an audition before, or ever sung in front of people, outside of occasional karaoke, so I had no idea what or how to prepare. I sang ‘Edelweiss’ acapella from “The Sound of Music,” which was a horrible choice for the raucous comedy I was auditioning for, but somehow I was cast in a small ensemble role. I was instantly hooked after that first experience, and I’ve never looked back!”
2. How would your friends describe you?
“I believe most people think of me as a nice guy, which hopefully is true. I’d like to think that people would also describe me as fun, caring, loyal, driven, and a good listener.”
3. How do you like to spend your spare time?
“Much of my spare time is spent around performing in some way. For big chunks of the last 20 years, I have spent many evenings either rehearsing or performing, thanks to the many opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to receive. When I do find myself with free time, I enjoy seeing friends perform, spending time with my dog, sleeping in, traveling to visit friends and family, and going to the movies.”
4. What is your current obsession?
“I’ve recently discovered the world of podcasts and have subscribed to several. I really enjoy having them on in the background if I’m doing office work, driving, etc. I think my favorite thus far is “Awards Chatter,”in which the Hollywood Reporter interviews various celebrities. Many are actors, who frequently describe how they got into show business, which I find fascinating.”
5, What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“Probably that I have a moderate case of ‘road rage,’ and I love to honk my car horn. It’s unexpected because I am usually fairly low-key in most aspects of my life, but that’s not always the case when I’m driving.”
6. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“Becoming an uncle has been incredibly rewarding and special for me. I don’t have children of my own, but in the past five years, I’ve been blessed with two adorable nephews and one beautiful niece.
“In the performance world, I think discovering cabaret has been very defining for me. The people that I’ve met and learned from have certainly shaped me as a singer and actor, and several of those relationships have led to performance opportunities in New York that I never would have imagined.”
7. Who do you admire most?
“I have a great deal of admiration for my parents. They’ve been married for almost 45 years and are extremely caring and kind-hearted people. I also think a great deal of many people I know who quietly do amazing things for people and never expect anything in return. Selflessness is such a rare and special attribute.”
8. What is at the top of your bucket list?
“There are a lot of international destinations that I’d like to see. I’ve been to parts of Italy and France, but otherwise I have not traveled outside of the US. I’d love to see Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand for sure.”
9. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
“Outside of seeing all of the amazing performances that we have available, I love exploring our awesome restaurant and bar scene with good friends.”
10. What’s next?
“After ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ is over, on Sept. 23, I’ll be in NYC to perform in a concert at Don’t Tell Mama. Soon after that, I’ll begin rehearsals for my fourth run of “All Is Calm” with Mustard Seed Theatre, which will run from Nov. 15 to Dec. 16.”
Jeff as Tateh in “Ragtime” at Stray Dog TheatreMORE ON JEFFREY M. WRIGHTBirthplace: North Little Rock, ArkansasCurrent location: Southampton neighborhood of south St. LouisFamily: Both parents, two brothers, two nephews, one niece. Single with no children and one dog.Education: Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy from Saint Louis UniversityDay job: Outreach Services Executive with SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. This is a business development role in which I visit other hospitals and physicians to teach them about our services, ensure that patient transfers to our facility go smoothly, etc.First role: Mayor Dan’l Dawgmeat and other small roles – “Lil Abner” with Studio J Productions, 1998.Favorite roles/dream roles: I have been extremely fortunate to play several dream roles already – including Pippin in “Pippin” with Stray Dog Theatre, Jamie in “The Last Five Years” with New Jewish Theatre, and Dan in “Next to Normal” with New Line Theatre. Other favorite roles include Rob Gordon in “High Fidelity,” Bobby in “Company,” Jimmy in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (twice), Finch in “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying,” Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls” and more.
The one dream role that I’ve yet to play is Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” and I’m truly hopeful to perhaps someday get that chance.Awards/honors: I share St. Louis Theater Circle Awards for Best Ensemble in a Musical with the cast of Stray Dog Theatre’s “Ragtime,” and the original company of “All is Calm” with Mustard Seed Theatre.
I also received Arts for Life’s Best Performance Awards for Best Actor in a Musical (Finch in “How to Succeed” with Kirkwood Theatre Guild) and Best Actor in a Non-Singing Role (Harry the Horse in “Guys and Dolls” with Alpha Players)Favorite words to live by: Work hard, play hard.A song that makes you happy: From popular music, “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. From musical theatre, many come to mind, but in recent years I’d choose “Alexander Hamilton” from “Hamilton.”
Todd Schaefer and Jeffrey M. Wright in “Hands on a Hardbody” at New Line Theatre.
Photos by Gerry Love, Jill Ritter Lindbergh, Peter Wochniak