Levi Kreis was a born performer, a singer-songwriter touring for audiences from the age of 12 and landing a full scholarship to study piano at Vanderbilt University when he was only a sophomore in high school. But he never considered a career as an actor. “It never crossed my mind,” Kreis, who was born and raised in Oliver Springs, Tenn., admits. That all changed when he was crashing on a friend’s couch in Los Angeles and came across an open call for the national tour of “Rent.” With no headshot or resume, he joined the long line at the cattle call, sang “I Can’t Make You Love Me” for his audition and promptly landed the lead role of Roger in the iconic musical.
Admitting it was “insane,” Kreis didn’t take it for granted. After the tour he began to study at Warner Loughlin Studios and pursue acting while also balancing a fruitful career as a singer-songwriter. He won the 2010 Tony Award for his Broadway debut as Jerry Lee Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet” — a performance that had him not only playing, but seemingly channeling, the legendary singer.
Now, Kreis finds himself testing his stamina with another energetic, full-throttle role as Hermes in the national tour of “Hadestown,” now in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre through May 29. The Tony-winning musical boasts music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell, and combines characters from Greek mythology — most notably Orpheus, Eurydice, Hades and Persephone — with an updated flair that incorporates musical styles from jazz to folk. Hermes serves as the narrator of the proceedings, and Broadway veteran André De Shields won his first Tony Award for playing the role. As played by Kreis, Hermes is both storyteller and host of the proceedings, recognizing that even if it is a sad tale, he wants everyone to have a good time.
Is this your first time back in a show since the COVID pandemic shut everything down?
It is, other than a couple of one-offs of my own performances. It’s such a ride, not only for those of us on stage, obviously, but for every human being in the audience. We’re about six months into the tour now, but every city we go to, you feel such a palpable, shared celebration. Theater is back. It’s just like nothing I’ve ever experienced, real joy, like we all just realize how grateful we are for the arts.
When did you first see “Hadestown”? Was it on Broadway?
It was. And I thought André De Shields was magnificent. I loved the music immediately, I responded to it right away. It was about a month before the world shut down.
Maybe this was far from your mind as you were watching it, but I know a lot of actors who see something and they know right away they want to play it.
I was the same way. I’ve always said that if I had been aware of it earlier, or had they been aware of me, or there had been an opportunity at an earlier stage — it just feels like it fits like a glove. And the creative team has been so wonderful to encourage us to find our own imprint, our own voice.
Having won the Tony Award for playing Jerry Lee Lewis on Broadway, did you ever communicate with any of the people who went on to play that role?
I did. And if people reached out to me, I would always be receptive. And I had a great conversation with André going in. It is really interesting to be on this side of the equation. And it has me pondering sometimes like, I’m sure that there were a lot of people in my shoes coming back after my Tony Award-winning role and recreating it for the tour, and getting the comparisons and navigating that journey.
I think every actor is responsible to bring their own life stuff, their own imprint, their own voice to a character. I think if you’re truly doing that, you’re going to find every character is going to look different when another actor puts it on.
What was it about the role and the show that spoke to you?
On an immediate level, the music, of course. It is so in my DNA. But also, I love that Hermes has a very palpable message. And it is a spiritual message. It is his message that says: Our thoughts, feelings and beliefs create a reality. And we are destined to repeat the same loop over and over again until we begin to address that — as Hermes says — “between your ears, behind your eyes.” They’re not hiding that message, it’s in plain sight. I think that is the thing that I love talking about, because I don’t think it gets talked about enough. It’s what I love most about it, because it’s sort of been the path I have found for me personally.
Have you read any of the think pieces that say Hermes might be an unreliable narrator in the show?
I have and I’ve enjoyed that. Because there are actual liberties Hermes takes in his storytelling that is not exactly how it went in Greek myth.
I don’t know whether to trust him or not, and that’s part of the fun of it.
That’s great, I want you to feel that way!
You’re on tour for a few more months, but do you know what your next project is going to be?
I’m writing my own musical. I’m excited about moving into that for the next five years, perhaps. I’m working with a wonderful book writer, Randy Redd, and I’m writing the music. We’re in our third workshop and getting very excited. It’s a really strong, powerful show, and I’m hoping it’s the role of a lifetime for me.
For more information on the national tour of “Hadestown,” which continues into 2023, visit hadestown.com/tour.