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Culinary icon James Beard comes alive on freeFall stage

Bill DeYoung

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Matthew McGee stars in "I Love to Eat" at freeFall Theatre. Photo provided.

Because he is one of our most prolific actors, it might seem like Matthew McGee must’ve performed a one-man show at least once in his Tampa Bay stage career.

Well, maybe there was a musical cabaret here and there – his drag revues are the stuff of legend – but I Love to Eat, opening tonight with a preview performance at freeFall Theatre, constitutes McGee’s first-every blastoff into the solo dramatic universe.

“It’s the hardest thing I have ever done,” confesses McGee, who stars as legendary American TV-and-cookbook chef James Beard in I Love to Eat, a play by James Still.

“I’ve done shows like The Mystery of Irma Vep and Greater Tuna, where it’s just two men doing a bunch of stuff. Those are dauting too, of course, but with another person there’s this feeling of give-and-take.”

McGee’s James Beard is alone on the freeFall stage for 75 minutes, giving with hardly any take (that’s where the audience comes in).

James Beard. Photo: PBS.

It’s 1985, four decades after Beard’s NBC cooking show, also called I Love to Eat, was beamed to the approximately 1,000 television sets then in existence in New York City.

The pioneering gourmand is rattling around his Greenwich Village apartment, sharing gossip, life lessons and his multi-faceted philosophy of cooking – Beard was a big fan of homegrown American foods, although he talks in the show of many sumptuous dining experiences in the capitals of Europe.

McGee’s Beard spends a lot of time on his telephone, which jangles often during the show. One time, it’s Julia Child, one of Beard’s closest friends and confidants, checking in on him (“She’s only slightly more famous than me,” Beard sniffs to the audience).

He takes calls from fans who solicit cooking advice, which he is only too happy to dole out.

FreeFall’s I Love to Eat is directed by Lee Anne Matthews. “We were surprised by just how lonely he was, throughout all of it,” says McGee. “A lot of the play comes from all the different books about him. He would just answer that phone any time of the day, help anybody out – and it was mostly to just not be alone.”

Transforming into “America’s first foodie,” at least physically, was the easy part for McGee. They’re roughly the same build – Beard was maybe a little taller – and they’re both bald. McGee grew a moustache.

“We started really early, so I got to spend a lot of time with the script, just really working through it. Lee Anne was such a good choice to direct it, because she has done shows with food before.

“And she would say ‘You’re getting a little into Matthew here. It’s feeling a little like you here,’ or ‘It’s feeling a little Nathan Lane here. That’s not quite right.’ So we just worked and worked to find this – well, snobby is not the right word – sort of an imperious quality.

“But he was flamboyant, and kind of wacky. And that surprised people. The playwright said he was a man with a lot of friends who were alternately excited by him, and aggravated as well.”

The actor was able to capture the gourmand’s mellifluous voice – Beard had an American father and a proper British mum.

Along the way, McGee had 60 pages of dialogue – all with detailed, interactive stage directions – to learn and assimilate.

“I’ve been like a monk, learning this part,” he laughs. “It’s been very quiet, very monastic, no looking at anything else.”

I Love to Eat opens Saturday; there is a preview performance tonight.

Info and tickets here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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