When he was still in his 20s and starting his theater career with a splash, Ken Page got to go to Paris.
He'd already made his Broadway debut as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wiz” and won a Theatre World Award for his portrayal of Nicely-Nicely Johnson (who sings, “Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat”) in an all-black revival of “Guys and Dolls.”
Not bad for a kid from North St. Louis who had only recently broken into professional theater as a member of the Muny chorus.
Then he was chosen for the original cast of “Ain't Misbehavin',” a revue saluting the music of Fats Waller. Costarring with Nell Carter, Charlayne Woodard, Armelia McQueen and Andre DeShields, the deep-voiced, generously-proportioned Page won more accolades, including a Drama Desk Award, for his treatment of the jazzy, vintage material. The show won the Tony for best musical — and then headed to France for about a year.
“It all happened pretty fast,” said Page. “And Paris, when you are young . . . there's nothing like it.”
Page, of course, was there under happy circumstances, performing in a hit show at night, wandering through the city by day. But sometimes he thought about his uncle, a World War II veteran who had been in Paris under very different circumstances. Still, the city had charmed him.
“He had always called his wife ‘cheri,’” Page recalled. “But I didn’t realize until years later, he picked that up during the war. It made me think about all those vets who share something that only they can know.”
One of those men is at the heart of the show he conceived, wrote and directed for Upstream Theater, “Café Chanson.” It opens this weekend at the Kranzberg Arts Center.
Featuring music by such artists as Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour, “Café Chanson” centers on an American man at two stages of his life. John Flack plays him as an aged veteran, called the Old Soldier, recalling his experiences as a Young Soldier, played by Justin Ivan Brown. Stationed in Paris near the end of World War II, the soldier finds refuge at a cafe run by a black American expatriate (loosely patterned on the celebrated hostess Bricktop, played by Willena Vaughn). He meets a worldly Frenchwoman (Gia Valenti) and a charming gamine (Elizabeth Birkenmeier), and gets to know a GI from a different unit (J. Samuel Davis) in the racially segregated Army. John Bratkowski and Antonio Rodriguez round out the cast.
Here in his hometown, Page understands that people think of him primarily as a performer. He’s especially well-known for his many performances at the Muny, where he often plays non-human characters — just as he did in the movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” in which he endowed the monster Oogie Boogie with his distinctive voice. He did the same at the Muny for Audrey II, the demanding plant in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
He created another of his signature roles, Old Deuteronomy in “Cats,” on Broadway before he was 30. Muny audiences also have embraced him as a kindly fairy-tale father in shows like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid.” “I say ‘daughter,’” he chuckled, “and Disney princesses come running.”
But he often directs or writes for other theaters around the country. Of course, he performs there as well, sometimes in his one-man show “Page by Page” or a three-person revue with Donna McKechnie and Lee Roy Reams, “Broadway’s Elite.” For many years, he’s made his home in New York or, more recently, Los Angeles, but spent much of his time on the road.
But last summer, while he was appearing in the Muny productions of “Aladdin” (as Princess Jasmine’s father) and “Dreamgirls” (he was also in the movie), Page decided it was time to come home.
In the first place, he didn’t think it would affect his work much: He could travel from anyplace, certainly from a city in the middle of the country.
And he found he missed his family.
Page is close with his parents, his sister and brother, his aunts and uncles and many cousins — and most of them still live in the St. Louis area.
Not that it was always a happy place for him.
“Sitting in your room listening to Barbra Streisand albums is not normative behavior for an African-American boy in Carr Square Village,” he conceded. At St. Nicholas school, other kids teased him, something he now recounts without rancor. “I was very different.”
But some grown-ups understood. His mother gave him shoe boxes to build models of stage sets, copies of shows he saw at the Muny. The librarian in charge of the record collection at the downtown library always let him know when new cast-recording albums had arrived. (“That,” he said, “is how I found out there were four different cast albums for ‘Hello, Dolly!’”) The owner of Amitin’s, a used-book store that used to be downtown, saved cast albums for him, too. “I would buy them for 10 cents or a quarter, and he’d throw in a couple for free,” Page said. “I educated myself.”
By the time he entered Bishop DuBourg High School, things were sunnier. There were school shows to perform in and music teachers to encourage him to study theater and voice at Fontbonne. At 18, when he joined the Muny chorus, Page decided he was on a career path, and set his sights on New York.
For a long time, New York, Los Angeles — and sometimes Paris — felt like home. But at 58, he wanted something else — and noticed that some of his Broadway colleagues seemed to have found it. “Cats” star Betty Buckley makes her home in Big Spring, Texas; “Dreamgirls” star Jennifer Holliday lives in Atlanta. Inspired, he moved to a penthouse apartment in the Central West End with a stunning view of Forest Park. The neighborhood satisfies his urbane style, and his many nearby relatives satisfy a deeper longing.
“Not everything needs to be fabulous,” he said. “I don’t want to get phone calls, I want to be in their lives,” he said.
“Sure, my life here is different. And I love Paris, I love fabulous — but that’s fleeting. Sitting in your aunt’s kitchen, drinking coffee and watching ‘Judge Judy,’ is purely happy.
“Somebody once told me, you work for your career for 40 years. After that, let your career work for you. By that point, you are known. If people want you, they will come to you. And if they don’t, there’s nothing you can do.” He laughed. “I have a lot left in me.”
Who • Upstream Theater
When • Through Jan. 27. Performances at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, at 7 p.m. Jan. 13 and 20, at 3 p.m. Jan. 27
Where • Kranzberg Arts Center, 501North Grand Boulevard
How much • $30; $25 for older adults; $20 for students
More info • upstreamtheater.org