Julian Brightman, who has been an actor in New York for 20 years, knew of the Flat Rock Playhouse before he arrived to perform in the comedy "The Big Bang."
"I'd always heard of it," Brightman says. "My agent got me an audition and the rest is history."
He ain't kidding.
Brightman joins Scott Treadway in the two-man cast of the show, in which a pair of hapless actors portray the history of the world in an effort to persuade their guests to invest $183 million in the most expensive musical ever made. A native of Philadelphia, Brightman, 48, has performed on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! and Peter Pan and in the national tours of Camelot and Heartstrings.
When he got the part, Brightman recognized right away what he had to do.
"The first thing I did was try to learn the dialogue," he said. "I said, I have to know most of that before I get here because I needed to get a jump on it."
How about the show? "I love it," he said. "It's just ridiculous. It's just over the top. You get to use every trick in the book and pull out all your ridiculous personalities that are hiding inside."
Treadway, 47, played the role before, on the Main Stage of the Flat Rock Playhouse nine years ago. It was a smash hit, bigger than anyone predicted. This time the show is at the Playhouse Downtown, adding some opportunities the Main Stage lacked but also challenges.
"We're performing in almost 360 degrees versus straight out," Treadway says. "There's a much deeper area to play."
"The Big Bang" is directed by Amy Jones, a veteran Playhouse actress and dancer who has returned to Hendersonville for the show. Treadway praises her skill at mining the material for the best comic advantage.
"She's a funny person, a funny actress as well as director, so she's bringing a lot of really cool stuff to the table," he says. "She'll bring out something and I'll say, 'Oh my God, I never even thought of that.' Last time I did it, there were connections we never made.
Sometimes we do what we do and it doesn't look like you sit at a table and have this thought process of, 'why would you really be saying that line, and what is the lineage that led us to this point?' That seems so cerebral, but in something like this it really helps every joke pay off much better. It really tells the story when you really kind of dig a little bit into, 'Why are they doing this? Where did they come from? What are some of the situations that led to these two dumb guys, who wrote this insane musical that's gonna cost $183 million...'"
"And the more sincere they are and committed to the thing," Brightman adds, "the funnier it is. They believe in it so much. ... They're attempting to portray all these historical figures, and they pretty much flop on every one."
They're a bit like Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in "Dumb and Dumber."
"You as an audience," Treadway says, "have to be in a position of (thinking), 'Oh, those poor shmucks, if they only knew ...'"
Using the elegant Park Avenue apartment of Dr. Sid and Sylvia Lipbalm as their stage, the two would-be producers try to line up backers for a depiction of world history that will feature a cast of 318 actors, 6,428 costumes and 1,400 wigs.
Treadway and Brightman sprint through the 90-minute show —no intermission — playing famous figures in the human narrative, including Adam and Eve, slaves building the Pyramids, Nefertiti, Julius Caesar, Minnehaha and Pocahontas, Isabella and Columbus, Josephine and Napolean Bonaparte. Each actor plays about 10 roles, so many they can hardly remember them all. "We have nuns in a French nunnery, Jimi Hendrix, the potato famine, Ava Braun, the Deep South, lions from the Coliseum," Treadway says.
Rehearsal was fun but grueling.
"You got lines, characters you've got to create," Treadway says. "You've got to remember the transitions between every song, and lyrics, your little dance moves, which I'm awful at."
All the while the actors are playing to one another, which adds another challenge.
"I'm gonna have to bite my tongue a few times in this show, because I can't look at him," Brightman says.
Musical numbers punctuate the action.
"They've done a really clever job in capturing certain genres of music," Treadway says. "There's the Wagnerian opera moment, there's the pop Michael Jackson moment, in the style of music that you recognize what they're trying to do. There's the number that he's got that is sort of reminiscent of the big bringin' home moment in Les Miz."
(Music accompaniment on piano and keyboards is performed by Willson Moss, a 2009 Hendersonville High School graduate and May graduate of UNC Greensboro.)
About half the actors' roles are women. The comedy relies often on dialogue between male and female, like Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella.
"There's always been something funny about men playing women," he says. "It's fun. If we're having a good time, the audience does."
Treadway shines at this kind of fast-paced sketch comedy.
"I grew up watching the Carol Burnett show and worshiping that show. That was all I ever wanted to do or be," he says. "It was that style of comedy that I loved and it made me want to do this.
Brightman will go home when "The Big Bang" closes on July 14. He'd be happy to perform here again.
"I'd come back here in a heartbeat," he says. "I'd heard of Flat Rock for a long time. It's a really decent credit."
Treadway first came to the Playhouse in the summer of 1984. It was the year after Vagabond School of the Drama founder Robroy Farquhar died but still a time when the resident company played summer stock — 10 shows in 11 weeks.
"That's what I knew. That's what we did," Treadway says. "You closed the show on Sunday and opened the next one on Wednesday. You didn't have a week of a tech."
Treadway is in the middle of a rehearsal pace now that's every bit as rigorous.
He follows "The Big Bang" with "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare," another fast-paced comedy in which three actors perform snatches of 37 plays in 97 minutes. That show is also at the Playhouse Downtown, where the Playhouse schedulers have programmed comic relief to the Main Stage's centerpiece musicals, "Evita" and "Les Miserables."
"I'll start rehearsal before this closes, and it's going to be a whole new production because there's two new actors, and we've got to start all over," Treadway says. "Maybe in some ways it's cool how much people underestimate how aerobic what we do is. It's just about the only exercise I need.
"It's a sweat-fest," he says. "We're sweatin' like pigs."