2017 TRUE WEST AWARDS
Day 30: The Breakouts
Steven J. Burge and Jeremy Rill
By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist
Steven J. Burge and Jeremy Rill are very different performers. Think Sean Hayes and Frank Sinatra. Burge will shock you into gut-busting laughter, while Rill will make you swoon. If Burge is the flamboyant life of the party, then Rill is more, say … sunset on the beach.
“If there is a spectrum,” said director and actor Robert Michael Sanders, “those two are on the opposite ends of it.”
The comedian and the crooner.
But these two emerging actors have far more in common than you might think. Both had big-time breakout years on Denver stages in 2017 — and both were separately described as “the nicest guy in Denver theatre” in interviews for this very story.
Something’s gotta give.
Steven Cole Hughes, Burge’s castmate in the Denver Center’s extended hit comedy An Act of God, goes so far as to declare with dead-on eye contact that “Steven Burge is the nicest guy working in the American theatre today. Period.”
Even Hughes’ 2-year-old daughter, Birdie, backed her father up.
“Hey Birdie, who is this?” Hughes said, pointing to a poster for An Act of God. The child’s face immediately lit up. She pointed to a photo of Burge playing no less than God Himself, and she declared enthusiastically: “Steven!”
“She’s 2,” Hughes reiterated. “Even the 2-year-olds love Steve Burge.”
That’s high praise (or short praise, come to think of it) for Burge, who has been working his way up to this moment with one joyful performance after another since moving from Iowa in 2003, most often in extroverted comic roles. Highlights have included playing Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors and conquering the epic challenge of playing 40 roles in the one-man comedy Fully Committed. In 2012, Westword’s Juliet Wittman flatly declared, “Steve Burge is one of the funniest actors anywhere.”
Says his friend and fellow actor Shannan Steele: “I love watching him delight in making others happy.”
But Burge’s body of work has revealed far greater range and uncommon emotional honesty in stagings such as Dog Sees God at The Avenue Theater (I called him “triumphant” in The Denver Post) and Curious Theatre’s Speech and Debate. No matter how big the character Burge is called upon to play, “you always know there’s a real and very interesting person underneath,” Wittman wrote.
(Story continues after the photo.)
Steven J. Burge co-hosted the ‘United in Love’ benefit concert with Eden Lane that raised $40,000 for The Denver Actors Fund. Photo by John Moore.
But Burge’s steady career trajectory took a turn for the skyward late last year when he was hired by Director Geoffrey Kent to be the understudy for An Act of God, a pointed social comedy in which God comes down to Earth in human form to set the record straight about the misguided ways in which we sometimes act in God’s name. When Broadway and TV star Wesley Taylor’s contract expired, the Denver Center did not seek out a similarly big-named national replacement. It already had Burge, who smoothly ascended to Almighty status for what turned into an extended run at the Galleria Theatre. The role called on all of Burge’s comic skills, as well as his uncommon gift to make people listen and laugh, even when they might not like what he is telling them. Burge had An Act of God audiences eating out of his holy goblet.
To say that Burge made an impression in his Denver Center debut would be an understatement.
“Steven has spot-on comic timing, a fantastic voice and the best rehearsal attitude and esprit de corps I know of,” said Kent. “He improves the quality of everything he touches.”
A few months later, Director Ray Roderick punched Burge’s ticket for an immediate return trip to the Galleria Theatre in the musical comedy First Date. Gigs at the Galleria are considered jackpot jobs among local actors because they generally come with a minimum six-month contract.
Burge plays many characters in First Date, most notably the quintessential gay best friend of a young woman who’s just starting to brave the dating pool. The reason Burge succeeds at taking such a stock character and making him meaningfully connect with an audience, says Steele, is his willingness to bring his authentic self to all his roles.
“The thing you need to know about Steven is that just beneath his hilarious and charming exterior is a beautifully tender, vulnerable, compassionate and generous person,” she said.
“Steven is the opposite of an old soul. He is brand new to his world … and his childlike wonder and joy are palpable.”
He’s now being rewarded for paying his many dues, and everyone agrees — it could not be happening to a nicer guy. For years, Burge has been known for saying yes to anyone who asks for his time and talents. This year, he co-hosted a benefit concert at the Lone Tree Arts Center that netted $40,000 for the Denver Actors Fund, and Miscast 2017 at the Town Hall Arts Center, which raised $7,000 more. He also has kept the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Awards buzzing along since 2012 with his unpredictable comic energy as co-host with GerRee Hinshaw.
“To me, Burge encapsulates the heart and soul of the Denver theatre community,” Kent said. “He volunteers for almost every arts organization I can list. If Denver were to elect a ‘Theatre Ambassador,’ he would have my vote.”
Also receiving votes for Nicest Guy in Denver Theatre would be Jeremy Rill, an Arkansas native who already was a big deal in the lofty Chicago theatre scene when he moved to Colorado for love. And it didn’t take long for people to notice.
“It’s that voice,” said his frequent director, Kelly Van Oosbree. “The richness and his absolute control of it is remarkable. The first time I heard Jeremy open his mouth, I said, ‘This guy is going to be big.’ You just can’t deny that voice.”
The Performance Now Theatre Company in Lakewood was the first Colorado company to catch wise, casting Rill in the regional premiere of Jane Eyre (Edward Rochester), Guys and Dolls (Sky Masterson) and Ragtime (Younger Brother). By then it was becoming pretty obvious to anyone within earshot that Rill was going to be a man in demand this year.
A lot more people know “that voice” after it opened up and sang for the first time on four different metro stages this year. Rill started out playing no less than Cole Porter himself in the Cherry Creek Theatre Company’s Red, Hot and Cole at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, landing quite cozily among a star-filled cast that included Steele alongside local big-shots Seth Dhonau and Lauren Shealy (both now co-starring with Burge in First Date), Damon Guerasio, Stephen Day, Matt LaFontaine, Sharon Kay White and several others.
Rill then earned karma points for life when he was asked to join the ensemble of the Arvada Center’s Jesus Christ Superstar after the actor playing Judas had to leave the show for medical reasons. That set off casting dominoes that ended with Rill stepping onto one of the biggest theatre stages in the state a mere four hours before the first performance in front of an audience.
There’s a reason Arvada Center director Rod Lansberry turned to Rill, whom he had never before cast, when the chips were down, Van Oosbree said. It’s that Sinatra cool.
“If someone ever asked me to do something like that, I would have said, ‘No, thanks,’ ” Van Oosbree said. “But Rod knew Jeremy could handle the pressure. And he did.”
That may be one reason karma has smiled back on Rill, who will return to Performance Now to play Cinderella’s prince in Into the Woods opening Jan. 5 at the Lakewood Cultural Center. He then joins the cast of the Arvada Center’s Sunday in the Park with George — and on the first day of rehearsal this time. Rill will play Louis, fiancé of the model who attracts the eye of an artist based on Georges Seurat.
Superstar led to the 2017 performance that will put Rill on every director’s radar – and wish list — for years to come. Van Oosbree tapped Rill to head another dauntingly loaded ensemble in Stephen Sondheim’s Company for the Aurora Fox that included Shealy, Heather Lacy, Lindsey Falduto, Carolyn Lohr, Rebekah Ortiz, Heather Doris and many others.
(Story continues below the video.)
Jeremy Rill performs ‘Everybody’s Girl’ at Miscast 2017:
You knew going in that Rill would bring any production of Company to a thunderous finish with his take on the forceful ballad “Being Alive.” But what separates a good Company from a great one is an actor who understands that Bobby’s journey is a serious rumination on the relative pros and cons of choosing a married or solitary life. Rill allowed himself to get fully lost in his journey — which at times meant going inside and checking out from the Aurora Fox audience altogether.
Turns out, as Van Oosbree plainly puts it: Jeremy Rill is not just another pretty voice.
“He’s also a really good actor,” she said. “He found the vulnerable in Bobby and the underlying pain that I think sometimes goes missing in other performances. The easy thing would be to make Bobby a fun, jovial bachelor, but that’s just not who this man is. Jeremy was clever and he was sexy and he was charming and he was cynical and he was sad. He was all the things. He just killed it.”
Wrote Ramsey Scott for the Aurora Sentinel: “Jeremy Rill nails the mix of aloofness and emotional despair that plagues his character throughout the show and matches it with a voice that deserves to be the center of attention.” Added Wittman for Westword: “Jeremy Rill has a richly melodious and supple voice that’s sheer pleasure to listen to.”
And Rill’s artistry, by the way, is not limited to the stage. He’s also a disarmingly effective portrait photographer who is known for bringing out an astonishing clarity of character in a single frame. Look no further than his revealing portrait of fellow actor Norrell Moore (right) soon after she started chemotherapy for breast cancer.
“I mean this as no disrespect to any other photographer,” said Sanders. “But if you put 100 random actor headshots in a pile in front of me, I could easily pick out the ones taken by Jeremy because he has such a distinctive style behind the camera. He just has a way of making actors look their best. Maybe it’s because he’s one of them. But somehow he manages to put a sparkle in the eye of every single person he photographs.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Steven J. Burge: 2017
Jeremy Rill: 2017
• Performed in Miscast 2017 for the Denver Actors Fund
Steven J. Burge and GerRee Hinshaw co-hosting the 2017 Henry Awards. BLF Photography.
About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’
The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore’s daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org
The 2017 True West Awards (to date)
- 2017 Colorado Theatre Person of the Year Regan Linton
- Day 30: The Breakouts: Steven J. Burge and Jeremy Rill
- Day 29: Composer and Music Director David Nehls
- Day 28: Lighting Designer Vance McKenzie
- Day 27: Buntport Theater’s The Zeus Problem
- Day 26: The Women of The Revolutionists
- Day 25: The Difference-Makers who raised $112,000 for The Denver Actors Fund
- Day 24: John Ashton, Vintage Theatre’s August: Osage County
- Day 23: Six “set-sational” set designers
- Day 22:Meridith and Gary Grundei, The Catamounts’ Beowulf
- Day 21: Logan Ernstthal, Creede Repertory Theatre’s General Store
- Day 20: Kevin Landis, University of Colorado Colorado Springs
- Day 19: Lenne Klingaman, Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s Hamlet
- Day 18: Helen Hand, Firehouse Theater Company
- Day 17: Randy Chalmers, two productions of Hairspray
- Day 16: Lauren Shealy, Lone Tree Arts Center’s Evita
- Day 15: Chris Kendall, Boulder Ensemble’s An Iliad
- Day 14: Stage Manager Maegan Burnell
- Day 13: White Rabbit Red Rabbit, Pipedream Productions and Star Bar Players
- Day 12: Playwright Josh Hartwell
- Day 11: The Rape of the Sabine Women, Local Theatre Company
- Day 10: Sammie Joe Kinnett, Arvada Center’s The Foreigner
- Day 9: Brandon Case, Aurora Fox Technical Director
- Day 8: Emily Van Fleet, Off-Center’s The Wild Party
- Day 7: Entertainment entrepreneur Kenny Moten
- Day 6: Bobby G Awards Coordinator Claudia Carson
- Day 5: Haley Johnson and Sydney Parks Smith, August: Osage County
- Day 4: Olyvia Sydelle and Joanie Brosseau, BDT Stage’s Rock of Ages
- Day 3: Cory Sapienza, Miners Alley Playhouse’s Hir
- Day 2: Opening of the Silverthorne Performing Arts Complex
- Day 1: The Tramps (Michael Bouchard, Sam Gregory, Timothy McCracken and Sean Scrutchins)
- 2016: Theatre Person of the Year Billie McBride