Rob McClure will go to great lengths for a smile.
The Broadway actor calls the East Passyunk neighborhood of South Philly home despite a busy train commute to the Big Apple each time he lands a big spot in a play.
“My wife and I had to make a decision whether we were going to come back up north, or stay here,” McClure said. “We love it here. It feels like home. So we figured we would attempt the commute. We joke that we have a second home on the Amtrak train.”
McClure and his wife Maggie Lakis are both theater performers and it was Lakis’ influence that made the couple settle in South Philly in 2006 as she worked in the Philadelphia theater community. Three years later, they bought a home in East Passyunk and have been stubborn to move despite a pretty regular schedule in New York.
“Maggie worked a lot in Philadelphia at places like the Arden (Theatre Company) and many other places,” McClure said. “When we were dating, she introduced me to the Philadelphia theater community, which I quickly fell in love with, and I started working down here as well.
“I love how Philadelphia manages to feel like a city and a neighborhood at the same time. There’s something about the scale of the city and the neighborhood vibe. There’s a real sense of community here and pride for the city. And South Philly is actually a really big artist hub. I learned very quickly that a lot of Philadelphia artists of all mediums make their home here.”
Although Philadelphia became home, New York was still the main attraction for acting work as the Broadway roles started becoming more frequent. McClure’s big break came with the musical puppet-laced comedy Avenue Q, playing Nicky and Trekkie Monster. From there, he went on to land the title role in the musical Chaplin, which earned a 2013 Tony nomination for best actor in a musical. More Broadway jobs followed, including Jack Singer in Honeymoon in Vegas, Tim Allgood in Noises Off!, Nick Bottom in Something Rotten, Adam Maitland in Beetlejuice, and he is about to reprise his title role in Mrs. Doubtfire, which will resume on March 15 after two long pauses due to the pandemic.
“Our third preview for Mrs. Doubtfire was March 12 of 2020,” McClure recalled. “It was when COVID hit hardest and our show hit pause for a 19-month break, which was really hard on all of Broadway. Then we came back and finally had our opening night on Dec. 5 (2021) and audiences loved it and we were doing really well. And then the Omicron variant hit.”
It was nine more weeks of waiting but it was the right call, in McClure’s opinion, to give Mrs. Doubtfire a proper chance at success.
“When you are a brand new show, there is a ramp up to a long sustainable run,” McClure said. “For (Omicron) to hit right in that crucial moment was tough, so our producer made the decision, and a good one, to hit pause for nine weeks and come back in the spring to give us the chance to have the run we know this show deserves.”
During the time off with the pandemic, actors like McClure were pushed into uncharted waters. No stage work was available and actors were forced to get even more creative to find other ways to pay the bills and simply keep their sanity.
“Theater people tend to be pretty scrappy,” McClure said. “We know that we signed up for an unpredictable life in terms of not knowing what’s next. This was just a hugely exaggerated version of that. We are social beings. Our skill sets lie in interaction, which is the exact thing we weren’t allowed to have. So it got really scary there for a while. A lot of us got through it because we thought outside the box.”
McClure created a YouTube series called Conductor Cam, playfully mimicking some of his conductor colleagues through 14 short videos.
“It was a really fun sort of comic take on the conductor monitors,” McClure said. “When we do shows, there are TVs that are mounted on the front of the balcony that have our conductor on them so we don’t have to look down into the orchestra pit to get our cues. Some conductors are pretty eccentric so I thought of funny quick clips to pay homage to the eccentric conductors that I know. That kept me artistically fulfilled. And on my Instagram, I was learning that the world was missing theater as much as I was.”
For McClure, especially, he missed performing. It hearkens back to his days as a kid when he decided he loved an audience. It didn’t matter what kind.
“I was always a goofball,” McClure said. “I think that my inhibition was my greatest tool. I was going to play Ninja Turtles on my lawn and not care about the neighbors walking by and thinking I’m crazy. And maybe if I get good enough at playing Ninja Turtles, someday someone will pay me to do it.”
That’s the message for his favorite project, which can be seen at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope on Feb. 19-20. The show is called “Smile” and it’s McClure’s life story performed mostly as a solo show, although Maggie Lakis joins him on stage for a few parts. It’s lots of laughs, sentimental stories, and even a few puppets to help tell the tales.
“It’s what I try to bring to the audience,” McClure said. “That return to childlike wonderment of storytelling and bring them through my unique influences and lens on my take of storytelling.”
McClure debuted Smile in 2016 and has performed it in different corners of the world. He’s excited to bring it back to Pennsylvania.
“My wife and I are super excited to get out there,” he said. “We love that area. We love New Hope.”
McClure says Smile has changed throughout the years to reflect the changes in his life. A big one was the addition of his daughter three years ago. She’s the new puppeteer of the family.
“She has inherited our love for puppets for sure,” McClure said. “If it’s a doll that can be remotely animated, she will animate it. I think every single toy she has, has spoken to me at some point.”
It has created even more of an influence for Smile, which still has seats available and can be purchased at www.buckscountyplayhouse.org or by contacting the box office at 215-862-2121. Big life changes also change McClure’s appreciation for other roles he’s performed.
“When I did the first reading of Mrs. Doubtfire, I didn’t have any kids,” he said. “But I thought I could imagine the lengths of what I would do to be with my kids. Now three years later, I have a completely new understanding of the length I would go.” ••