LOVEABLE BIG GUY IN "VICTOR/VICTORIA"
When his parents urged him to become a physicist, Gregory Jbara had only one thing on his mind -- a part in the university play. The world may have lost another Sir Isaac Newton, but the musical theatre gained a charming and dedicated actor, who is cuòrently grabbing raves as Squash in Broadway's Victor/Victoria.
Jbara literally stops the show every night as the huggable hulk of a bodyguard. While some singers might be dissatisfied with a songless role, Jbara offers no complaints.
"Know what I've learned about my role in Victor/Victoria?" Jbara enthuses. "It's quite simply the character I play has no fat on him. He just sneaks up on the audience. There were some songs that were written, but in the process of the show, creating a song for Squash was not a priority. Everything that Squash had to contribute to the story was already there. In Minneapolis I didn't sing at all. I just came out and brought roses to Toddy [the cabaret performer played by Tony Roberts], but in Chicago when I sang that "G," suddenly it just pushed the weight of my character over the top. "The role is very satisfying because everything I get to do is a payoff. Granted, I'm not being asked to tear my heart out onstage, but right now the work is perfect. I don't want to say it's easy because it still takes concentration to hit that note at the end of the show. That actually scares me sometimes."
The oldest son in a family of four children in Westland, Michigan, Jbara's imagination led him from one adventure to another. In third grade what he loved most about being an altar boy was center stage. As a teen ager, he designed an apparatus for his high school science class that enabled the user to drop an egg 40 or more feet without breaking it. When Jbara's father, who is a private investigator, hired his son Gregory to serve a few subpoenas, he turned the job into Mission Impossible method acting--until his father found out. By his own admission, Jbara had a short attention span. He jumped enthusiastically into projects but seldom finished them. The one exception was theatre. Jbara could not get enough.
"Theatre was always what I wanted. I was in all the plays in high school and junior high. I was a member of all the choirs. I played every instrument, from drums to trumpet to trombone to baritone horn to tuba. In junior high I was an athlete as well until it became a conflict to be in both band and theatre. I would much rather get a round of applause for my singing than for getting my head broken in."
At the University of Michigan Jbara studied physics. "I loved physics, but I soon realized that the people who were aspiring scientists could do in their heads what it took me four or five hours of studying to do. So I spent all my time doing theatre and chasing the applause."
In his junior year Jbara dropped out of college. His teachers were saying, "Don't waste your time and talent here because what you really want, you're not going to accomplish in Ann Arbor, Michigan." Disappointed and frustrated, his parents cut him off financially. To them, this was another in a string of unfinished projects.
To survive, he talked his way into a job as a line cook at a local steakhouse, and on weekends he toured with a children's theatre company. When the Juilliard School was auditioning in San Francisco, he scraped up enough money for a plane ticket and flew there. As a result, he was waitlisted as first alternative. Joe Urla decided to attend Yale, so Jbara went to Juilliard.
New York seemed an expensive proposition for the Jbara family. "I come from a background where they were a little too concerned about turning the lights off when you leave the house. Every time I leave my apartment, I still hear my father going, 'What do you need to leave the lights on for? I'm paying for that electricity. Shut that off.'
"When I got accepted by Juilliard, my father was just so excited ánd proud, but my mother said, 'You can't afford to go to New York City. You're one of four children, and we have to give all four kids the same privileges.' Afterwards my father took me aside and said, 'Don't worry. Whatever it takes, we'll figure out a way to get you there.' The same guy who was complaining about the lights was the one who said this is important for you. Fortunately, the rest of my siblings were valedictorians and got scholarships."
Since Juilliard, Jbara's career has flourished in theatre, film, television and commercials. His theatre credits include the recent Broadway revival of Damn Yankees, Born Yesterday, Serious Money, Privates on Parade, Forever Plaid, Das Barbecu and Have I Got a Girl for You as well as myriad TV commercials and film roles. At 34 he's already sung at the White House. Each consecutive job brings increased exposure and new fans.
"Lately I get hired because I have size and I have sweetness, although in commercial land, I'm 'young dad' all the time. During Damn Yankees I did get hired for one commercial as 'white trash husband,' which is a nice transition for me," he teases.
Jbara's future plans include a staged reading of a new musical, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., based on a Dr. Seuss story. Brian Brolly will produce, the music and lyrics are by Glen Roven and the book by Anthony Horowitz. Jbara will play one of the leads, a plumber named Mr. Zablidowski. Jbara has also been cast in the new Michael Hoffman film, One Fine Day, which stars George Clooney and Michele Pfeiffer.
Meanwhile, Jbara delights audiences as Squash, created from a group of "big guys who underneath are just teddy bears. I'm not just playing a dummy," he stresses. "Maybe he's not professionally as challenged, but there's a demeanor, a size and a weight and sensitivity; that's what I'm getting hired for. There's definitely a look that you know I have. I'm not being hired just to play a big stupid guy.
"I don't consider myself some super duper superstar. I just want to be a regular guy who gets to do great things. There's always the next role. That's what is nice. I finish a role and go on. For my attention span this industry's perfect."