CINCINNATI -- Randy Harrison hasn’t been back to Cincinnati since he graduated from the UC College-Conservatory of Music in 2000.
It’s not that he bears a grudge; he’s just been too busy.
Soon after graduation, he was cast as Justin, one of five principal characters in Showtime’s groundbreaking show “Queer As Folk.” And, it seems, he’s been working nonstop since.
“Well, I have had some down periods,” said Harrison, speaking by phone from suburban New York City, where he is in post-production for “New York Is Dead,” a web series about two out-of-work artists who become hit men to earn a little cash. “But yes, I’ve mostly been pretty busy.”
Harrison plays the Emcee, the master of ceremonies of the Kit Kat Klub, a tawdry nightclub in Berlin in 1931, just before the Nazis come to power. It’s a role made famous by Joel Grey, both onstage and in the 1972 film version directed by Bob Fosse, and later by Alan Cumming in the 1998 Broadway revival.
Harrison was in a summer stock production of “Cabaret” in the late 1990s. But he was in the ensemble then.
“Honestly, I didn’t ever think about myself playing the role back then,” he said. He was in his early 20s at the time and didn’t have the maturity or the breadth of experience to dominate the stage the way the role requires.
But in 2013, when he heard that New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company was remounting the remarkable 1998 Sam Mendes-Rob Marshall version of the show, he realized he might finally have the age and experience to pull off the role.
“I had grown into an actor capable of playing this role,” he said. “I was much more of a character actor than the performer who did the ingénue-y stuff from earlier in my career. Just in learning the material for the audition, I fell in love with it.”
Even after he realized that Alan Cumming would return to Broadway to play the role, he kept working on it. It’s a role, he came to realize, that is almost without limitations.
“You get to be funny and dirty and sexy and play with gender and — it’s everything,” said Harrison. “This role is such a gift for an actor.”
Especially for an actor like Harrison, who seems to have no end to the inventiveness he brings to roles.
That’s not a new quality, either. He has been like that since he was a young performer, said D. Lynn Meyers, producing artistic director of Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, where Harrison made his local professional debut when he was still a student at CCM.
“He was already so versatile,” recalled Meyers. “He could sing and dance. But he was super-hardworking, too, and flexible in his willingness to try different things. He was a joy to work with, from the moment he auditioned. I’m not surprised at his success.”
The show was “Violet,” a musical play that Meyers credits with changing the direction of ETC in 1999. By coincidence, ETC opened a new production of the seldom-produced musical on May 4. The company rarely revisits productions it has done before. But according to Meyers, producing “Violet” again was a way of paying homage to the impact the show had on ETC as the company closes its 30th anniversary season.
“I loved that show,” said Harrison. “And the music is incredible. I was in the ensemble and had some small featured parts. But I was really happy and really proud to be a part of it. School can be a kind of insular environment. It’s fun. But it’s fun to do work outside of school, too. And it helped me grow in important ways. I believed in that theater and Lynn and the show. I was lucky I was able to do it.
“Of course, I love this show, too. And I love this production, in particular. It’s extremely relevant right now. There are so many parallels between what was happening then and what’s happening now.”
He’s not suggesting that we’re destined to relive the sins of Germany’s Weimar Republic.
“I have a lot of hope for our nation,” he said, noting how he has been politically active in the past. “But doing this show right now, I feel I’m doing exactly what I should be doing as a citizen. This is how I can contribute to the political conversation. And I’m excited to bring it to Cincinnati.”
Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Downtown
Tickets: $29 and up; 513-621-2787; www.cincinnatiarts.org.