Musical comedy buffs have no trouble placing Dean Jones. After all, though it nearly drove him to the verge of a nervous breakdown, he did create the starring role in the landmark 1971 Tony-winning musical,
Company, the object of all those "Bobby Bubi's" in the Stephen Sondheim-Harold Prince collaboration.
More than a quarter century later, the one-time Disney star of The Love Bug franchise has now booked passage as Cap'n Andy onto Show Boat, the lavish Prince-Garth Drabinsky revival of the 1927 Oscar Hammerstein-Jerome Kern musical, which is in Toronto through Jan. 4 before sailing on to Hartford (Jan. 13-Feb. 8), Tampa (Feb. 17-March 21) and Fort Lauderdale (starting March 28). And he says that his return to the stage -- the first since he starred in the 1986 Broadway musical flop, Into the Light -- is as joyous and fulfilling as anything he's ever done in his long career.
"This is exactly what I needed," he says, having come to the show from a Tunisian desert where he had been filming a biblical epic, playing the disciple John. "Roughly, its like jumping onto a speeding train. The challenge is to be very fresh and deliver the joy to that particular audience, every matinee, every evening."
Just as Bobby's anxiety was key to Company, so is Cap'n Andy's uniquely American optimism central to Hammerstein's sprawling epic of show people traversing the river towns of the Mississippi. After he was cast, Jones collected some of the notes on the original production and was struck by Hammerstein's description of his character as identified with the joy, tenacity, stubbornness and resilience of those brave souls making their living before the footlights. "If I don't convey that, then I shouldn't be playing that week," says the 64-year-old actor. "We actors are lucky. We get to put the blood of the show, the muscle, the bone, in it each night. I consider that a great privilege."
That attitude represents a 180-degree turn from where Jones, then at the peak of a film career (six of his ten movies for Walt Disney are on Variety's list of all-time hits), found himself in 1971 when he made his stunning Broadway debut. The actor says now that he had no concept of anything beyond "my own needs" at the time. "Unfortunately, many of the cast at the time were as isolated as I was," he recalls. "Elaine Stritch told me that when she offered Donna McKechnie a cup of coffee one day during the strenuous rehearsal period, Donna burst into tears because it was the first extension of human kindness she had received. That's how isolated we all were."
The reunion of the original Company cast a few years ago at Lincoln Center for a benefit concert also elicited tears, but this time there were tears of joy and love, particularly when Jones stepped forward to sing "Being Alive." "Beth Howland was going around with a roll of paper towels because everyone was so emotional during the dress rehearsal," says Jones. "It was a lovefest."
Ironically, says the actor, the turnabout in his career came about with Into the Light in which he played an atheist looking into the mysteries surrounding the Shroud of Turin, which many believe to have been the cloth which held the crucified body of Christ. A family man of deep and abiding faith, Jones says that although the show was a failure, the experience for him was one of fulfillment and great underlying joy. "I was able to replay from a personal perspective what I'd gone through in Company in a triumphant and victorious way, even though the show was itself not successful. To now be in such an uncompromising hit like Show Boat with these same feelings is such a gift."
-- By Patrick Pacheco