Ethan Le Phong’s mind flashes back to when he was two, seeing the ocean green as his parents whisked him out of Vietnam on a fishing boat.
He also remembers water splashing into the boat after its motor broke.
“We were stranded in the ocean for a month,” he says. “Seven adults and 10 kids under the age of 15.”
The group steamed salt water and rationed it—a tablespoon per person each day—until another fishing boat spotted their craft and dragged them to port in the Macau region of China. Le Phong and his family were hospitalized for several months, and ultimately sponsored to the United States, where thousands of Vietnamese boat people started new lives in the land of opportunity.
Today, Le Phong is touring from sea to shining sea as Pepper in the Broadway musical Mamma Mia! based on the songs of ABBA. It plays May 10–15 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Gexa Energy Broadway Series. The out actor says, “I’m the bartender who flirts with every woman in the play, right? I get the cougars all hot and sweaty.”
Le Phong’s big splash is “Does Your Mother Know” (originally called “I Can Do It”), in which he performs a half-dozen splits in a song-and-dance number with Alison Ewing, who plays the well-to-do Tanya (Christine Baranski’s character in the 2008 movie). Ewing admits that it’s a little bit funny fooling audiences night after night with Pepper played by a handsome gaysian. “It is [fun],” says the San Francisco-based actress. “Onstage, it’s imagination. Ethan is so wonderful and positive. There was a feeling between us the very first day of rehearsal.”
Mamma Mia! weaves ABBA hits such as “Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance on Me,” and “Super Trouper” in a story set on a lush Greek island. A young woman invites three men from her mother’s past to her pending nuptials to try to discover which one ? is her father. Hint: it’s not the gay dude.
Le Phong is best known as one of the 10 men in the 2007 movie Naked Boys Singing. “We sing and dance very naked,” he says. “It was a great launching pad for me.” He appeared in an episode of HBO’s social satire Little Britain USA, and he’s all over YouTube. Film pays better, he says, “but I love the stage. I will never abandon it.”
In April, Le Phong celebrated his 200th performance with the touringcompany of Mamma Mia! in Naples,Florida, before moving to Savannah, Georgia, where he hoped he might see
The Lady Chablis, the Georgia peach who hid her candy in the Clint Eastwood movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
“Evil, right,” says Le Phong.
The opposite of evil is the good that Le Phong and some of his friends do at home in Los Angeles through a nonprofit organization called Layers of Love (layersoflovela.org). “We throw birthday parties for children afflicted or affected by AIDS or HIV,” he explains. “It is my pride and joy when I’m not onstage. It’s one year old and going strong.
“If it’s your birthday, we say, ‘Call up 10 of your friends. We’re going to a Dodgers game or taking you to a play at the Ahmanson Theatre,’” says Le Phong. “We’ve also thrown Christmas parties, and celebrities have come and taught dance classes.”
Le Phong says he came out to friends when he was a sophomore in college, but didn’t tell his parents until he was 27. “The Asian culture at that time was very traditional, so it was quite difficult, even for your family. [Some Asian parents feared that people would treat gay children] unfairly if they knew. It took my mother several years, but I told them,
‘We are living in a country where people are free.’”
Le Phong adds, “My parents loved me before, but they love me even more now.”
What: Mamma Mia!
When: May 10–15
Where: Hobby Center’s Sarofim Hall,
800 Bagby Street
More info: thehobbycenter.org or
713/315-2525 (box office)
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.