Spokane’s Max Kumangai Takes Center Stage as Hermes in ‘Hadestown’ on Broadway
It’s been 14 years since Max Kumangai, a graduate of North Central High School, moved to New York to carve out an acting career.
During this time he spent many nights on Broadway stages – as an ensemble player in the original Broadway casts of “Waitress” and “Jagged Little Pill”, as a “swing” – a performer who must be ready to step in for another cast member at any time – or as a dance captain, responsible for ensuring a show’s choreography is crisp and perfect.
He’s also had a few moments in the spotlight, stepping in to play supporting characters in “Waitress,” for example, or his little scene in “Jagged.”
But on Nov. 2, Kumangai donned a shimmering silver suit, put wings on his shoes, and took the stage at the Walter Kerr Theater and took on the role of the Greek god, Hermes, in the musical “Hadestown.”
“He’s a showman, and the stakes are so high for him, and he wants the story to end differently this time,” Kumangai said. “It’s cool to take this trip. He watches things unfold. Hermès is so focused on orienting these characters to create a new outcome. It’s fun to watch the audience see what’s happening on stage.
Kumangai doubles as the actor playing Hermès, Lillias White. In White’s absence, Kumangai has the opportunity to play a lead role in a hit Broadway musical.
This is an important step in his career. Hermes is a major role in “Hadestown,” Anais Mitchell’s retelling of the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. In Greek mythology, Hermes is the messenger god, and he also carries the dead to the underworld. In the world of “Hadestown”, he is the narrator of the series; The voice of Hermès opens the show.
“I’m interested in seeing how this affects my career advancement,” he said. “I’m still in shock playing this type of principal on Broadway. I played Cal and Joe in ‘Waitress’, but they were secondary directors. … I think it will only help move from the ensemble to more dubbed roles on Broadway. I think that can only help. The fact that I’m studying a role that drives the whole series, not many people get that experience.
The role was originated on Broadway by legendary actor Andre De Sheilds, who won a Tony for his work on the show. Hermes is now played by an equally high-profile performer, White, who won a Tony for “The Life” and was Effie in the 1987 revival of “Dreamgirls.”
Kumangai knows that taking on this role, even for a short time, comes with a huge responsibility.
“I think I played a storyteller another time in my life,” he said. “Your stage partner is the audience and it took a few performances to get used to. I’m used to going on stage and ignoring the audience and making what’s happening on stage… my environment. Hermès talks to the audience. The audience relies on him to move the story forward. It was interesting.
He admits to being somewhat in awe of White, whom he calls ‘the kindest, most nurturing soul ever’ and whose work he studied in depth in ‘Dreamgirls’ when he was a theater student. at the University of Michigan.
“This role is so iconic and walking in the shoes of Lillias White and her legacy – if you were to tell me as a student obsessed with everything she did, that I was going to be her understudy, I would have laughed so hard with you,” Kumangai said. “I guess the stars have aligned and here we are.”
Initially, Kumangai was to play Hermès for five performances, while White was away for a few days on another work engagement. But before she could return to Hermes, White tested positive for COVID-19, which meant a mandatory 10-day absence from the show. Kumangai and other understudy Malcolm Armwood shared the extra performances, with his last scheduled for today.
“It was a big deal,” he said. “And she’ll have four more performances that she won’t be able to do towards the end of November, so on those days I’m also going to part ways with the other understudy. So I have a really good time to play with everything. It was great. And the director and the associate director were there and watched both of us, and luckily they were able to give us notes to enrich our performances. It was great. It really was.
Kumangai came to “Hadestown” in June. His run in “Jagged Little Pill” ended in December when the show ended. He then returned to “Waitress” for a 10 week tour before returning to New York to join “Hadestown”.
One of the biggest highlights of his time as Hermès was sharing the experience with friends and family. His parents, Katharine Kumangai and John Blanchette, both retired reporters from The Spokesman-Review, were in the audience the first night he took the stage as Hermès and for several performances thereafter.
“It’s such a cathartic experience. There was so much built-up anxiety of ‘Am I going to be able to do this with so many family members and friends at my first performance?’ ” he said. “But that morning I woke up and I thought, ‘You choose to be anxious. Just choose to be excited. It literally changed my whole mood. I was really excited. I got on stage and I was like, ‘You’re perfectly imperfect, it’s okay if you’re wrong, but have fun.’ And I did. And I was so happy that I was able to do it myself.
“It was cool to be able to share that with them.”