Imagine replacing a popular performer who played a high-profile role, on and off, for almost 20 years.
That’s the mountain that J. Robert “Jimmy” Moore must climb as he dons Crumpet the Elf’s holiday hat in David Sedaris’ perennial hit, “The Santaland Diaries,” at Zach Theatre. Moore must wrestle with memories of Martin Burke, who introduced the role to Austin in 1998 and played the cantankerous Macy’s employee — with judicious breaks — until 2016.
“Audiences come to see the personality of a performer infused in the work,” Moore says about one-actor shows such as “Santaland.” “That was the case with Martin, and we can't escape it with ours. I've been told my version is kinda flirty and gossipy — as if you are sitting down to coffee to kvetch with a good and funny friend.”
One of Zach’s pivotal talents, Burke was not the only performer to amuse packed houses as the irreverent Crumpet. Rob Williams from the Flaming Idiots juggling comedy act took over in 2004; Lee Eddy became Austin’s first female Crumpet in 2005; and Espie Randolph took up the challenge in 2008 and 2009.
RELATED: Laugh at ourselves with Martin Burke in "Santaland Diaries"
Moore has already played the role in San Antonio, where he grew up, albeit when he was much younger. Now he is 32, one year younger than Crumpet’s onstage age, and much wiser about the ways of the world, especially after working some “really horrible jobs” while launching his theatrical career in New York City.
Moore, who earned his graduate degree in directing at Texas State University in San Marcos, grew up watching old movies and knowing that he wanted to be part of theater.
“I just didn’t know how to break in,” he laughs. “I was Mike Fink in the fifth grade, and I got the role because the teacher went ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe.’ That's how I landed my first lead in a musical.”
He lucked out by working with a good drama teacher at Marshall High School in Northwest San Antonio, but she concentrated on competitive one-act plays rather than musicals.
“My high school teacher would say, ‘Musicals are fun for everyone but the director,' which comes back to me sometimes.”
At age 16, he was cast in the ensemble of “Camelot” at San Pedro Playhouse.
“That's when it hit me,” Moore says about the stage. “Live theater is something you can live in as a performer night after night. It's something you can bury yourself in.”
His family, which follows his stage work closely, thinks a World War II-themed Christmas show that he wrote, produced and directed was his finest achievement.
“Friends who were involved remember it fondly every holiday season,” he says. “That sparkly piece of glitz that we did.”
He did his undergraduate studies at Texas State as well and graduated in 2007. By the time he returned for graduate work, Kaitlin Hopkins was in the process of transforming the university’s musical theater training into a top 10 national program.
A role in “Anything Goes” caught the eye of Abe Reybold, associate artistic director at Zach, who drafted Moore to assist in directing “The King and I.”
RELATED: Kaitlin Hopkins takes Texas State to the top in musical theater
“At that time, they were auditioning ‘Peter and the Starcatcher,’” Moore recalls. “Abe asked if I was interested in auditioning for Michael Baron, who was directing it. I said no, because I didn’t know the show. Then I read the script and felt really connected to the character of Black Stache. I walked away from auditions like I always do, thinking I didn’t get it, but I did and was thrilled. Despite the fact that I’ve done two one-man shows at Zach, most people remember me from Black Stache.”
Moore’s other Zach solo show was “Buyer and Cellar” by Jonathan Tolins, which is about an imaginative man who curates Barbra Streisand’s basement in Malibu. When the playwright was honored with a Drama Desk Award, Moore joined other actors, including Michael Urie, who had played the role for a surprise gathering of the Brotherhood of Barbra.
RELATED: Zach actor joins the Brotherhood of Barbra in NYC
His New York years proved a mixed bag: some parts, including a splashy show at Madison Square Garden, but mostly just survival.
“I learned a whole lot about myself,” he sighs. “I’d go to auditions with all my stuff on my back. One time a friend was going uptown on the A Train from auditions and I was going downtown and we got off at the same stop. Between us, we had 75 cents and 25 cents — enough for a $1 Gray’s papaya hot dog in those days.”
He doesn’t think he could do it again.
“Living in New York City is for very young people and very rich people,” he says. “The quality of life is very difficult. I remember thinking I could be doing better work — and more consistently — elsewhere."
One bonus from life in the big city: meeting his boyfriend, Levi Stoneking, a lawyer, who came with Moore when he moved back to Central Texas in 2013.
“I was upfront on the first date,” Moore says. “'I want marriage, children and Texas.'”
Last year, Moore served as artistic director of Zilker Theatre Productions, which produced “All Shook Up.” Before that, at Texas State, he directed a signature production of “Evita.”
“I wanted it to be sweeping, romantic, glamorous, novelistic,” he says. “It has to be Brechtian, but also I wanted it to be raw, sexual.”
As for “Santaland,” he deeply respects the Austin tradition that Burke and co-star Meredith McCall — who joined him for the musical interlude — built around the show. When Zach producers reached out to him about playing Crumpet, he was drawn to the project in part because Zach education director Nat Miller, who directed “Buyer and Cellar,” would helm this one as well.
“We knew we had a good rapport,” Moore says. “We have this collaborative spirit. I think he was attracted to my half-actor, half-director brain.”
Of course, this offspring of musical theater will sing.
“Currently, it’s going to be ‘New York, New York,’ ‘White Christmas,’ ‘I'll Be Home for Christmas,’” he says. "And a very special bit from ‘Away in the Manger’ as performed by Billie Holiday.”
One tiny concern: Moore is not elf-size.
“I'm not necessarily playing it taller,” he says. “But I am taller.”
At the time of this interview, Moore had already tried out his version on an invited audience.
“They really ate it up,” he says. “Laughed in the right spots. With a one-person show, the audience is 50 percent of the equation. They made me look forward to the run in a whole new way.”