by Jim Gladstone
“After seven years of being a featured actor,” quips Barrett Foa, who brings his cabaret act to Feinstein’s at the Nikko June 24 and 25 in San Francisco. “It’s nice to get back to being self-indulgent again.”
Behind every joke, of course, is a little truth.
New York born-and-bred, Foa—best known for playing operative Eric Beale in the ensemble of the stalwart CBS drama NCIS: Los Angeles—is a theater kid at heart.
Foa, 38, made his Broadway debut fifteen years ago in the original cast of Mamma Mia! and has also played Princeton/Rod in Avenue Q (Foa was the first non-puppeteer specifically trained for the show) and replaced Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
“Television has given me a cushion,” he says, “So I can get back to singin’ and dancin’. I’ve really missed the immediate gratification of laughs and applause that you get from a live audience.”
“To be honest, that’s why I started putting this show together,” says Foa, who debuted his new act in April at Los Angeles’ Rockwell and played Feinstein’s 54 Below in New York earlier this month.
“Cabaret is really the most self-indulgent of all the art forms,” he says, suggesting that it may also be and antidote-of-sorts to disappearing into formulaic procedural television.
“I’ve dipped my toe into this a bit before, doing some numbers in collaborative shows with a group of friends at Ars Nova and the Duplex in New York, but this is my first full show.”
Called Grin and Barrett, the show began with Foa assembling a long list of his favorite songs—“These are all songs that make me happy every time I hear the first chords play”—and then paring it down to dovetail with a group of anecdotes he wanted to share about his life in and out of the theater.
“It’s not your mother’s cabaret,” he says, noting that the show includes songs by James Taylor, Randy Newman, Rufus Wainwright and other pop composers as well as theater music. “I need it to appeal,” he jokes, “to laypeople as well.”
Molding his own show also gave Foa a chance to create structure amidst the unpredictability of ensemble TV series work in Los Angeles compared to a live theater schedule.
“On Broadway, you know exactly where you need to be every night. You plan brunch at 11 and dinner at 5. With a series, you can have a 13-hour day and you don’t necessarily know when you’re going to start or finish. Over time, things have become a little more regular at NCIS and we usually work from very early in the morning and get off at 6 or 7. It’s been interesting for me to have an evening at my disposal instead of providing someone else’s entertainment.”
As he makes clear in his cabaret act, Foa loves losing himself in a character and looks forward to returning to Broadway after NCIS: LA runs its course. “People used to want to cast me as romantic characters like Hero in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or Rolf in Sound of Music. But I don’t think those are the roles for me any more. I’m ready to be a quirky leading man.”
On hiatus last summer, Foa tested those waters, playing Harold Hill in a successful Connecticut production of The Music Man. “It was a blast,” he recalls, “And I was really grateful to have a chance to play a lead like that.”
The show also held some nostalgic value for Foa, who performed a smaller role in the show while studying theater at the University of Michigan. Also in that cast were friends and fellow Broadway actors, Gavin Creel (Hair) and David Burtka (husband of Neil Patrick Harris).
Foa has fond memories of the Michigan program and this past May 16, joined dozens of fellow graduates in a New York concert celebrating their one-time professor, Brent Wagner, before his retirement.
“Every year I’m out of college I realize how important it was to me. That program really gave me my life.”
And that life, Foa makes clear, has live theater at its heart.
“My heart and soul are in New York. I want to be on stage and I want to be closer to my family. I have a seven-year-old nephew and I want to be more to him than ‘Uncle Barrett from California.’”
Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.