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Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Behind the scenes with Nicholas J. Pearson, who stars as the Cowardly Lion in 'The Wizard of Oz' at Jones Hall on February 23 and 24.

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Nicholas J. Pearson as the Cowardly Lion.

Nicholas J. Pearson has always been a big film buff. In particular, the 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz, based on the beloved L. Frank Baum book, is one of his favorites. He owns the three-disc commemorative version with behind-the-scenes footage.

“Oh God, yes—I loved that movie growing up; it was always on TV,” says the 34-year-old New York-based actor. “There’s something so simple about the message that there’s no place like home—there’s nothing like family. I always try to make a family wherever I go. In gay culture, we tend to do that.”

Right now, his family is straight out of the Land of Oz while he stars in the Broadway touring production of The Wizard of Oz, coming to Houston’s Jones Hall February 23 and 24. Pearson plays the dual role of farmhand Zeke and the Cowardly Lion.

”It’s basically like seeing the movie, live and onstage,” Pearson says of the production. “It’s all the songs and the lines from the movie.” One of those lines comes at the end of the story when Dorothy is leaving Oz and has to say her goodbyes to the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow.

Dorothy: Goodbye, Tinman. Oh, don’t cry! You’ll rust so dreadfully. Here’s your oil can. 

The Tin Man: Now I know I’ve got a heart, ’cause it’s breaking. . . 

Dorothy: Goodbye, Lion. I know it isn’t right, but I’m going to miss the way you used to holler for help before you found your courage. 

The Cowardly Lion: I never would’ve found it if it hadn’t been for you. . . 

“I just cry my eyes out at that point, every single performance,” sighs Pearson. “Dorothy was the first one to believe in the Cowardly Lion. She gave him that courage.”

Pearson loves the entire cast and crew he’s touring with, but there’s one pretty cool cast member that he says everyone loves.

“Murphy is just the most chill dog ever,” he says of the rescue dog that plays Toto. “Everybody loves him and loves to cuddle with him. He’s actually the pet of our musical director, Lizzie Webb. It took him a while to get used to everything onstage, but now he’ll just yawn in the Wicked Witch’s face when she threatens him!”

But it’s not all love and laughter for Pearson when he’s onstage. After all, there’s what he calls his “fur-lap sack.”

Nicholas J. Pearson

“It’s basically like wearing a carpet,” Pearson says of his lion suit. “It’s very sweaty. It smells. After the show, if someone is unzipping me in the back, I warn them to move as soon as the zipper is open. It’s like steam just rises up as I take it off.”

He estimates he burns 1,300 calories per performance. But on the plus side, the six-foot-two-inch 250-pound actor says it’s the best weight-loss program he’s ever found.

And then there’s that tail.

“The biggest problem is actually maneuvering that mechanical tail. I fall down several times in the show, and I have to make sure the tail is out of the way or I can really hurt myself. But it’s a great costume—I feel like a drag queen. I’ll look in the mirror when I’m all made up and I say, ‘Hello, gorgeous!’”

Pearson is dedicating all of his performances to his father and brother, who both passed away in recent years. Pearson grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where his mother and younger sister Laura still live. He earned a music-education degree, but instead of teaching he moved to New York in 2009 to try his hand onstage. He’s had roles in Monty Python’s Spamalot, A Christmas Carol, and The Rocky Horror Show where he played Eddie. When he’s not on tour, he enjoys cooking, baking, and throwing movie-themed parties in his Manhattan home.

“We usually have a Harry Potter birthday party, or we throw one for the opening day at Hogwarts,” he says. “And of course, an Oscar party!”

He’s thrown bashes for Hollywood’s big night for the last 13 years, but he’ll be performing in Houston when the Academy Awards roll around this month. 

“It started in college with a couple of us around a TV set with some Totino’s pizza rolls,” he recalls. “But it’s much more elaborate now—I buy special shot glasses and plan a menu of movie-themed food. We have ballots and a big board of nominees, and we play trivia games during the commercials.”

Maybe this year he’ll just celebrate with some great Tex-Mex.

“That’s what I’m looking forward to in Houston,” says Pearson. “I love a big bowl of guacamole and a good margarita.”

What:  The Wizard of Oz
When:  February 23­-­24
Where:  Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
Info: facebook.com/events/1120185348148902/

This article appears in the February 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.

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