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Another Knockout for Broadway's Rocky

03/23/2015 04:50 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

Lamb Chop brought Andy Karl and me together. Not the kind that's roasted, grilled, or served with mint. I'm talking about the iconic sock puppet created by the late ventriloquist Shari Lewis back in the 1950's.

Karl is the Broadway veteran who's just racked up rave reviews for his hilarious portrayal of Kristin Chenoweth's boyfriend in the revival of On The Twentieth Century. This, less than a year after being nominated for a Tony award for "best actor in a musical", for his starring role in Rocky.

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A decade ago, Karl was playing a hip-hoppin' homeboy in the off-Broadway production of Altar Boyz, about a fictional evangelical boy band. At one point in the play, the five band members reach into a trunk at the rear of the stage and emerge holding identical Lamb Chop puppets, as they sing a rousing number called Lamb of God. Near the end of the song, they begin clapping their hands, which results in each hapless Lamb Chop being mercilessly smacked in the face.

The number got huge laughs. I saw the show during one of the "Broadway Cares" collection weeks, when actors take charitable donations while the audience exits the theater. As I was dropping my contribution in the basket Karl was holding, I said "I must tell you, Shari Lewis was my cousin, and she absolutely would have loved that moment. She had a great sense of humor about Lamb Chop". (In fact, when we were in restaurants together, she would often order lamb chops, just to enjoy the stunned looks on the faces of the waiter and any diners within earshot).

Karl was astonished, and said he was a big fan of Shari's PBS show in the 1990s. We ended up talking about her on the phone a couple of days later, and I sent him some items I'd been given by Shari's husband after she passed away in 1998, including Lamb Chop stickers and a photo of Shari with her famous little sheep. Karl told me he pasted the picture at the bottom of that trunk, and every night when the Altar Boyz retrieved their puppets, they would see Shari smiling up at them.

I brought him another Lamb Chop memento when I visited him backstage at last season's Rocky. Karl affixed it to his dressing room mirror "for good luck", as he said, and I'm quite sure it was a major factor in his Tony nomination.

Now he's playing a character named Bruce Granit, and theater critics are again calling his performance a knockout. "Andy Karl exudes comic charisma with his acting and singing. His muscular biceps are so well featured they should receive separate billing", writes Broadwayworld.com. "Karl applies his athletic prowess to physical comedy... to sidesplitting effect", said USA Today, while the Bergen Record noted "Karl... is an eye-opener, as the transparently self-absorbed Bruce... Who knew he could be hilarious?"

Well, anyone who's been following Karl's career knew. We talked about it all before a recent performance.

SN: As one who's seen you in four or five shows over the last decade, it looks like you're having more fun in On The Twentieth Century than ever before.

AK: That's why I love theater: I can do shows that are completely different from one another. Altar Boyz had heavy dance moves, but also a comic edge to it. And now I'm utilizing all my physical skills: jumping on walls, doing pratfalls and bits and huge takes. My whole show is basically lining up one bit after the next.

SN: And unlike in Rocky, you don't get punched in the face.

AK: Yes, but all these Broadway shows are tough, they really are. I've probably seen the worst of it all, and then the easiest of it all.

SN: Do you relate to the character of Hollywood star Bruce Granit? Because as we know, most actors have big egos!

AK: Absolutely! You just eliminate all the morality of yourself, and depend on ego and smiles. It's really, really fun to just jump in there, especially coming out of something like Rocky. There, every scene I would have to take a second before I went on stage to remember the intention of what I'm trying to get. This is more like, if I just jump a little higher tonight, they might laugh! That's all I'm really going for.

SN: What's it like working with Kristin Chenoweth?

AK: I am in love with this woman. She's a true Broadway workhorse, and she's up for doing any bits. She's also of my mindset, that the comedy and timing is really important, and it's great to meet somebody who cares so much about making sure everything works. She has a tremendous voice, she's very pretty, and she just throws herself around the stage all night long. It's a tour de force performance.

SN: You actually do a lot of the throwing.

AK: One day in the rehearsal room, I literally said, what if I pick you up and throw you up against the wall? She's like, let's try it! And we did! I thought, you gotta love the girl for letting me throw her 89 pound body up against a wall. She's so tiny, I just thought, we have to work with this.

SN: You were born in Maryland. Tell me about the journey from Baltimore to Broadway.

AK: Baltimore is where I got the bug. My mother played organ for her church, and there was always music around the house. I was in the chorus in elementary and high school, then in high school I did a musical for the senior showcase.

I played General Bullmoose in L'il Abner, and I got my first laugh there.

SN: Do you remember the moment?

AK: I remember the exact moment. I said "Eagle Eye Fleagle", dropped my hands, and the audience laughed. I remember having, I don't know, a sense of control, a sense that what I'm doing is getting a reaction from a thousand people there.

And I tapped into that as a teenager, I grabbed onto that as my job. I thought, that's my responsibility for the rest of my life. I'm going to try to do that over and over again. I started doing dinner theater on the side to pay for some books in college, and then, around 20, I thought, I'm going to give it a shot in New York.

SN: You made your Broadway debut in 2000 in Saturday Night Fever. You didn't get a Tony nomination then, but you did get a wife out of that show (the actress-singer Orfeh).

AK: I saw Orfeh first in Footloose, and I thought she was amazing. Then I saw her in Saturday Night Fever, and she killed it. Moved the entire audience and moved me. And I just had a feeling I was going to be in the show, and six months later, I was.

SN: Let's talk about Rocky, for which you got incredible reviews, plus, of course, the Tony nomination.

AK: I prepared for that show for three years, doing workshops and readings and training. I'd been really concentrating about what it was about the role that connected to me, and what connected me to the role, so I was really primed for it.

But doing the eight-shows-a-week thing is astounding. I was weaving through the scenes and going off stage and sweating and changing, then coming back on and fighting two fights and jumping rope and training. It was all over the place. I was fully focused, 24/7, 100% Rocky all the time.

SN: Could you enjoy the praise you were getting at the time?

AK: Part of the enjoyment was, I'm living up to my own self-critical standard of doing theater in a lead position, the way I feel like I should be doing it. People are liking it, and it's all working. Just that, in any actor's life, is profound. That's what I was enjoying with the process.

SN: What's it like to return to a featured but supporting role now?

AK: It's all the same. Any actor who's onstage... at least this is what I do... I'm always using 120% on whatever the heck I'm doing. I have to make an impression with all the bursts of things I do in this show... taking the picture, shutting the door, opening the door... as long as I'm making people laugh at those moments, I feel like I'm accomplishing something.

SN: What's coming up for you after On The Twentieth Century ends its run in July?

AK: I'm already auditioning for things. I wish my life was like, oh, I have four things lined up already, this will be a good year. But I gotta go to auditions and make contacts. I don't know if that ever ends.

The great thing is, I get to be a working actor.

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We ended our conversation there, and, in keeping with tradition, I gave Karl another keepsake from Shari Lewis and her wooly puppet. And it occurred to me that while Lamb Chop never actually used her own voice on stage, Andy Karl certainly has found his.

Shari Lewis photo credit: Paul Drinkwater