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McCartan is go-to ‘bait-and-switch bad guy’

Ryan McCartan plays Hans in "Disney's Frozen," which comes to Clevleand's KeyBank State Theatre for a monthlong run starting Aug. 11. (Submitted photo)

Ryan McCartan had recurring roles on the television series “Liv and Maddie” and “Freakish” and played Brad in FOX’s live production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.”

He’s a songwriter and producer, and has a YouTube channel with his partner, Samatha Fekete.

But he’s best known for his work on stage, where he originated the role of Jason Dean in the Off-Broadway musical “Heathers” and played Fiyero in “Wicked” and Hans in “Disney’s Frozen” on Broadway.

He’s back in the role of Hans for the national tour of “Frozen,” which starts a monthlong run Aug. 11 at Playhouse Square’s KeyBank State Theatre.

His best-known stage roles all have something in common (consider this a probably unnecessary spoiler warning about a major plot twist in a show based on one of the top-grossing animated films of all time).

“I’ve played the bait-and-switch bad guy, as I call it, many times in my career,” McCartan said during a phone interview from Dallas the current stop on the “Frozen” tour. “Even Fiyero in ‘Wicked’ is that, just the opposite. You start off not liking him and you end up liking him. I don’t know what it is I bring to the table that is illustrative of those qualities. I hope I don’t have an evil streak in real life.

“It’s become my absolute favorite thing to do because you get to do everything. You get to feel the heat and warmth of being the protagonist but slowly and surely sink into the racing pulse of a villain trying to get away with something. To go through that whole story is intricate and very exciting.”

“Frozen” is about a young woman named Anna who goes on a quest with an iceman, his reindeer and a snowman in search of her estranged sister, Elsa, who cast a spell on the kingdom that leaves it buried under ice in eternal winter. McCartan’s Hans is a handsome prince Anna falls in love with and rules Arendelle in her absence.

Despite the film’s popularity, boosted by the Grammy- and Oscar-winning song “Let It Go,” McCartan said the stage version attracts many people experiencing the story for the first time.

“I always know who those people are the second I’m in the library and turn around and reveal myself as the bad guy. Almost always we get an audible gasp from the audience, and that makes me happy for three reasons. One, I know there’s an audience out there who hasn’t experienced this piece in any form. Two, I know the audience is with us because if you’re audibly reacting to the show you’re watching, you’ve got them in the right place.

“But three, I think some of the gasps come from people who fully have seen the movie and either forgot or are so convinced by Anna and Hans’ love affair that they think to themselves, ‘Well, maybe they changed it.’ And I love that the audience is so dropped in.

“It’s not just a kids’ show. We’re not just performing for toddlers all the time. It’s such a diverse audience of ages and backgrounds, different cultures, different vibes in every city. Without fail, no matter who they are, they get lost in that moment when we throw them this curve ball — this person they’re supposed to be in love with has been the bad guy all along.”

McCartan has a long history with the musical, with music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and book by Jennifer Lee. He auditioned for Hans for the original Broadway production and made it to the final round.

When the show was looking for replacements for the Broadway leads, McCartan was cast in the role.

“I joined in January 2020, so I’m sure you see where this is going,” he said. “When the pandemic hit and all the Broadway shows closed, those of us who had just joined only had a chance to do this show we had fallen in love with and worked so hard on for only a few weeks. It was devastating.”

At the time McCartan joined the Broadway cast, the creative team was making some changes to the show that would affect both the New York and touring productions.

“Disney sees these pieces as living, breathing pieces and will implement changes even after they open. When we joined the Broadway company, we weren’t rehearsing our tracks to jump into the show, we were rehearsing with everybody because they were making changes to the show — adding pieces, changing choreography, changing staging. It was really cool to be a part of.”

Coming in when he did also gave McCartan the opportunity to put more of a personal stamp on the character than simply trying to fill the role once occupied by another actor.

“The process is different everywhere,” he said. “In some productions, there is a sort of way they want the characters played, either tailor-made to a performance in history they really like or they’ve found what works and there’s not a lot of wiggle room. While I can appreciate that, as a performer you want to do your own unique thing.

“Coming into ‘Frozen’ at a time where they were rejiggering the show did offer me an opportunity to bring myself, my ideas, my artistry to a role that had already been built and playing it in a unique and special way.

“I think that is just par for the course with this creative team. When I auditioned in the first place and then when I auditioned later, it was very important to them, ‘Don’t just give us the movie. Don’t do what you think a Disney prince would do, what you think a Disney villain would do … This is to appeal to every member of any family or generation.’ It was important to them and remained very important to them to give these characters humanity, to give them realism and to be adaptive and changeable every night.”

During a long run in any show, there is a danger of slipping into a routine, going through the motions with a performance. McCartan said one of the members of the production team calls it the “Meh-thod,” a punny twist on method acting.

One thing that helps McCartan avoid the “Meh-thod” is knowing there are children (and adults) who may be experiencing live theater for the first time, and he wants it to be as magical for them as it was for him growing up in Minnesota and watching his sister on stage at the Children’s Theatre Company.

As part of the announcement before each performance about silencing cellphones, unwrapping candies, etc, “At the end it says we would like to extend a warm welcome to anyone who is attending their first Broadway show. May this be the beginning of a lifetime love for Broadway,'” McCartan said. “I’m not exaggerating, that is genuinely one of my favorite parts of the show … Sometimes I think it’s more for us so we can remember the duty we have in showing people who might be coming to see a Disney story they know from the movie what theater can do.”

If you go …

WHAT: “Disney’s Frozen”

WHEN: Aug. 11 through Sept. 11. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: KeyBank State Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1515 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $39 to $149 and are available online at playhousesquare.org and by calling 216-241-6000.

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