“If I let my environment dictate what I did for the rest of my life, I would have been a farmer!” laughs Patrick Wetzel, a native of Southern Maryland. “I grew up in farmland, working on farms, but I clearly was driven to do theater. I was drawn to it. Luckily, my mother sort of nurtured me and supported me in that venture.”
When Wetzel was 18, he got his theatrical break — at the Harlequin Dinner Theatre in Rockville, Maryland, a storied venue that shuttered in 1992.
“The actors waited tables and served cocktails before the show, and then you went and did the first act,” he recalls. “At intermission, the actors — in costume — would put on aprons and come out and serve drinks. It was my first job as an actor, so I felt like, ‘Oh gosh, I can do this and I can earn a living doing this.”
Fast forward to now. Wetzel, bright and ebullient in conversation, has carved out an impressive theatrical career. His Broadway credits include The Producers, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Spamalot. And now the 53-year-old is playing the role of Barry in the national tour of The Prom, currently at the Kennedy Center for a two-week run.
A bubbly, feel-good musical with a largely LGBTQ narrative, The Prom follows four Broadway actors as they venture into a small town to salvage their narcissistic images. Their good deed? Helping mount a fabulous inclusive prom for a lesbian student and her girlfriend. In the process, the four more or less salvage their own souls, with Barry’s journey arguably the most powerful.
“I don’t want to give too much away,” says Wetzel, “but Barry has history where he didn’t get to go to his prom. He’s trying to, in a way, right a 30-year-old wrong.”
Although touring has been a challenge in the era of COVID, Wetzel is thrilled to be back in front of an audience. “People want to see this kind of story,” he says. “They want to feel good about the state of the world and the communities that we each live in. They’re really responding and loving it and supporting the show.”
Still, COVID has created the need for a set of strict protocols for the company. “We’re tested daily,” says Wetzel. “We have very strict mask-wearing policies backstage. The minute the actors leave the stage, there’s a mask there and it goes on. We’re all being careful and not going out and doing big group activities. We’re taking precautions to keep ourselves healthy. We feel like we have an extra layer of responsibility to the show and to our jobs and our career.
“So I will say, I’m very much living like a nun. Except for the habit. I’m not wearing the habit.”
The Prom runs through Jan. 16 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $49 to $139. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
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