Levi Kreis: Accepting Broadway Success with ‘Grace and Ease’
Duane Wells

In more charismatic churches down South, there is a thing called the Holy Ghost that is anything but benign. To the true believers in these churches, the Holy Ghost does not sit quietly on the sidelines and demurely acknowledge the penitent prayers of those that kneel before it. It is instead a rousing, electrifying life force that often brings with it soul shouting, wailing, animated dancing and speaking in tongues, among other similarly emotive acts. Tennessee-born actor/singer/songwriter Levi Kreis grew up in and around this fiery spirit from the time he was a little boy, sitting in the pews of his home church, in the tiny town of Oliver Springs.

Today, listening to his Southern-fried, gospel-tinged vocals as his agile fingers dance at lightning speed across the keys of a piano on Broadway in the Tony-nominated musical Million Dollar Quartet, it is apparent that Kreis remains infected by the spirit of the Holy Ghost he witnessed as a child. In the musical, Kreis portrays music icon Jerry Lee Lewis, a role he injects with enough frenetic energy, humor and holy-roller showmanship to literally steal the show in what has become one of Broadway’s surprise hits of 2010. For his outsized efforts over the course of the last year, Kreis has earned both universal raves from critics and the 2010 Tony Award for “Best Featured Actor In A Musical,” highlighting what has been something of a turnaround for the boyishly handsome star who admits that 2009 was a year he was quite glad to see the back of.

“Last year was a devastating year for me,” Kreis recently revealed over coffee in the lounge of his New York City apartment building. “It was probably the hardest year of my life and it involves so many things that I can’t even begin to articulate yet, but for me, it was the bottom. Professionally things were going great, but personally the rug was just pulled out from under me on all levels.”

Despite having a new album, Where I Belong, which debuted in May 2009 and enjoying a hit pre-Broadway run with Million Dollar Quartet in Chicago, Kreis struggled privately. Though he had been out for years and had sacrificed over a half-dozen lucrative record deals because he refused to live his life in the closet, personal demons centered around his own coming out and self-acceptance issues continued to plague him.

“A lot of what I uncovered about everything that sort of came my way in 2009 was that it was all reflective of the shame I still had of me,” the showman says staring pensively into his massive coffee mug. “It was about the guilt I still carried as a gay man and the inability to know how to love myself and to make life-enhancing choices for myself.”

Kreis chose to answer his private turmoil with a renewed personal commitment to his own daily spiritual “excavation” in much the same way he had devoted himself to daily prayer as a teenager. “I stopped pursuing everything with a spirit of need,” he explains. “I realized that I wanted to just love me, so before 2010 took over, I got down to ‘I just want to love me.’”

And what a powerful choice that clearly turned out to be, as 2010 revealed itself to be a watershed year in Kreis‘ career. Still, as the accolades for Million Dollar Quartet rolled in and he ultimately brought home this year’s Tony for his performance in the show, Broadway’s freshly minted new star remained tentative about all the attention and success.

“When I came home with the Tony Award, I put it in the back of my closet and shut the door because it paralyzed me with fear,” Kreis says of his shining achievement. “I was thinking … I haven’t had the confidence to even admit that I’m an actor, let alone a Tony Award-winning actor, and now that I know people all over the country just saw what happened and are now going to want to see this Tony Award-winning actor in this Tony Award-nominated musical, it scared me.”

As with most of his personal battles, however, Levi confronted his newfound fear by returning to his spiritual roots. Jokingly he tells me about how he and a girlfriend in Chicago with whom he prays every morning, chant the mantra “grace and ease” when dealing with difficult or trying situations on a daily basis. Clearly he’s had to call upon that mantra often in recent months, which have proven to be revelatory for him.

“I’m out of the closet with the Tony!” Kreis says with a laugh as he reflects on coming to terms with his fears. “I’ve learned from struggle, I’ve learned from being poor, I’ve learned from rejection, I’ve learned from the experience of having success evade me, and I know that … and I’ve gotten better from that. I think it’s just now time for me to learn the lessons that present themselves in the experience of success, in that they challenge me to confront my own limiting beliefs about myself.”

One by one, Kreis is daily challenging those ‘limiting’ beliefs—first by wowing sold out Million Dollar Quartetaudiences nightly on Broadway, and secondly by pressing forward with projects near and dear to his heart, like his new SideXSide tour with Eric Himan and Jason Antone and developing his own solo “Intimate Evening with Levi Kreis” tour, which he debuted to rave reviews in Chicago last month and now hopes to launch in between Quartet performances in 2011.

Looking back on 2010, Kreis says he’s grown more self-assured, “The experience of this past year has provided me the confidence to look beyond this moment and begin to envision other things that are interesting me.”

So now that Tony has already come calling for the multi-hyphenate entertainer, could Oscar, Emmy and Grammy be next? Possibly.

Kreis is currently mulling over his next moves carefully, but one thing is certain—he is now more open than ever to new directions. With possibility at an all-time high for him, the future looks like a veritable jukebox of opportunity for Levi Kreis. And that could mean a whole lot of spirited entertainment for all of us. Now that he’s got the “grace and ease” gig down, I suspect that could be a very good thing indeed.

Find out more about Levi Kreis at LeviKreis.com. Visit milliondollarquartetlive.com for more on Million Dollar Quartet.