THE LEADING MEN: "Boyz" in the Band

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: "Boyz" in the Band Try to remember "the fire of September" and you'll find three hot young guys ablaze with talent: Cheyenne Jackson (Altar Boyz), Darren Ritchie (Dracula) and Noah Racey (Where's Charley?).
Cheyenne Jackson
Cheyenne Jackson Photo by Ben Strothmann

JACKSON: HE'S SO CHEY

In two short years, Cheyenne Jackson has understudied the roles of Jimmy and Trevor in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Radames in Aida, and gone on dozens of times, so he can really standby and deliver. Most recently, this sexy 6-foot-3 star signed up to be Jarrod Emick's understudy in the new Elvis musical All Shook Up, which previews this winter in Chicago and opens March 24 at the Palace.

Jackson, who's as sunny as his nickname of "Shiney," says, "I've understudied Marc Kudisch, Gavin Creel, Christopher Sieber, Will Chase, Adam Pascal and soon Jarrod Emick, and they're all great guys. I'd love to originate a role, but meantime, I'm just enjoying the ride. I know my day will come." Well, that day is nearly here. He will star in Altar Boyz, a new musical comedy about a Christian boy band, Sept. 16-25 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Written by Kevin Del Aguila, Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, it's a cross between 'N Sync and Nunsense. Jackson will play Matthew, the lead singer ("Thank God, Matthew Morrison was too busy"), and their hit single is a salute to celibacy called "Girl, You Make Me Want to Wait." His posse of pop features Ryan Duncan, David Josefsberg, Andy Karl and Tyler Maynard.

Born in Newport, Washington, Jackson did tons of theatre in the Pacific Northwest. He was "the darling of Seattle," says Kudisch, when Jackson understudied him in The Prince and the Pauper at the 5th Avenue Theatre. "Cheyenne is one of the most striking-looking men I've ever met, wow, and I'm straight. He's sweet, strapping as all get-out, and he's got a gorgeous voice and a humongous heart. I told him, 'Dude, you've got to come to New York.'" Kudisch gave him his agent's number and he soon joined Millie. At home in Manhattan, Jackson, 29, enjoys spending time with his "awesome" partner of four years and their dog, Zorra ("I sing love songs to her").

Question: First, is Cheyenne really your actual name?
Cheyenne Jackson: Yes. I'm one-16th Cheyenne Indian, so I'd like to say it's based on that. But I really got that name because my parents were fans of this 1950s TV show, "Cheyenne." It was like "Bonanza" but with worse acting. It's funny. When most people hear my name, they expect to see a sassy little black girl. Q: How did you first get involved with Altar Boyz?
Jackson: Two years ago, I just joined Millie and heard about it through Darren Ritchie. I went to private Christian school, and I love singing pop. Omigod, I had to be a part of it, and I've done nine readings of it. It's about five guys who love God and each other: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abe. And it's about losing your faith and regaining it. Parts of it are funny and other parts are poignant, and it's got a lot of heart. But what keeps it altogether is Michael and Gary's music. It's so good and melodic. You could take a bunch of these songs and put them on top-40 radio.

Q: Which boy bands do you enjoy?
Jackson: I love Boyz II Men and Take 6. A lot of boy bands today have a couple of good singers and the others are blenders. You don't want to hear them sing solos. But our guys are Broadway boys. They're all fantastic.

Q: Were you ever a real altar boy?
Jackson: No, I'm not Catholic, but my parents were elders in a [charismatic] church, so I know where Matthew's coming from. When I was 15, 16 and 17, I spent my summers in Mexico with Youth With a Mission, and helped build orphanages and dig ditches. I also passed out Bibles, but my Spanish wasn't too good. We went to homes and I was supposed to ask: Is your father at home? "Esta tu papá?" But I was always asking "Esta tu papa?," which meant "Is your potato at home?"

Q: How did you get hooked on showtunes?
Jackson: When I was seven, I got the soundtrack to "Annie" with Aileen Quinn and Carol Burnett, and I loved it! I started going to garage sales and collecting wonderful old cast albums. Then I'd hole up in my bedroom and mimic all the voices. As soon as I found out about Broadway, I knew I had to get there.

Q: Has it been a challenge to be out and true to your faith?
Jackson: It's been difficult sometimes, but I am who I am. My family and friends know that. All I care about is that I treat people well. It's so bizarre that it's such a big deal. I get cast in these big masculine roles and I've been out since I was 18. And I always had girlfriends [growing up], but it always ended badly. I think I knew I was gay ever since I was five, six, seven. Even though I'm a big guy, I've always been gentle and soft-spoken, and I got teased for it. You know the top [of a carton] of homogenized milk? It just says "homo," and on my first day of public school [in eighth grade], someone had put one of those caps on my desk. Kids can be cruel. Coming out was crazy hard. We had a family powwow and it was tough, but my parents rock.

Q: You once said that your parents are "bigtime Elvis fans," so how did they react when you were cast in All Shook Up?
Jackson: My mom was screaming into the phone when I told her. And I grew up watching "Viva, Las Vegas." I understudy Jarrod, who plays this Elvis character who comes to town, swivels his hips and tells everyone to follow his dream. It's kinda based on Twelfth Night with mistaken identities. I'm so thrilled to be in it.

Q: Congratulations! Do you ever count your lucky stars?
Jackson: Every single day. I remember once in Millie, I was hiding in a laundry cart with Sutton Foster and I whispered to her: "Three and a half months ago, I was watching you win the Tony and now I'm in this laundry cart about to kiss you. It blows my mind." She said, "I know. Dreams come true." That doesn't mean I haven't had my share of disappointments, but I can't believe this is my life.

For more information, visit www.cheyennejackson.com.

RITCHIE: BAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!

Darren Ritchie plays Jonathan Harker in Dracula, so he's got a real stake in the new vampire musical at the Belasco, but even if he didn't, the Carnegie Mellon grad would be happy to go to bat for Frank Wildhorn. Ritchie, who plays a Brit trying to save his wife (Melissa Errico) from Dracula (Tom Hewitt), says, "I love Frank's music. He's very underrated and he's written a beautiful score. I have this gorgeous song [‘Before the Summer Ends'] in Act II. I'm a hopeless romantic, and the idea that you might have to kill someone you love is awful. But I love singing that song every night."

Wildhorn is equally wild about Ritchie, whom he "discovered" from Camille Claudel, which starred Linda Eder and played Goodspeed's Norma Terris last fall: "Darren's got this great pop sensibility, and though he's playing a period guy, he transcends that and speaks to everyone, and I love that about him."

It might be risky to stick your neck out in a musical about Dracula, especially after last year's Dance of the Vampires, but Ritchie, 26, insists, "Our show isn't campy. We're not doing Bela Lugosi. We're doing an erotic romance, and Tom plays it sexy. Dracula can put women – and men – under his romantic spell."

As for the show's nudity, the charming six-foot actor says, "It's been blown out of proportion. It isn't gratuitous. It's artistic. When Kelli O'Hara's dress rips off, it's so beautiful. When you're in one of Des McAnuff's shows, you feel like you're in a painting that moves. Visually, he's brilliant." When told that O'Hara and Errico get paid extra for their nudity, Ritchie wisecracks, "Well, I rip my shirt open. I didn't know that!"

A recent standby for Doug Sills in Little Shop of Horrors and a cover for Gavin Creel in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Ritchie is thrilled to originate his first lead role on Broadway. He gushes that Hewitt and Errico "have been so great to me." And though he hasn't seen any backstage ghosts at the Belasco, he says some cast members have felt their presence. Does he believe in ghosts? "I think so. If they're here, there's a reason why they haven't made it to heaven or hell."

Born in Columbia, S.C., Ritchie later moved to Sarasota, Fla., with his dad, and became an expert on bats – and balls - as a teenaged pitcher. The budding baseball prospect played satellite ball until he got bit by the theater bug. Still a good sport and athlete ("I'd like to be an action hero in the movies"), he met the Joy of his life in the Broadway Softball League: actress fiancée Joy Suprano. He swears, "She's not only an amazing second basewoman, she inspires me everyday." They're getting married Sept. 3, 2005, and how Ritchie proposed to her last October was a gem: "I have a pug named Nemo, and I put the [engagement] ring on his collar and attached a note with a ribbon that said, ‘Be my wife.' Then I let Nemo trot up to her with it. Once she realized I wasn't kidding, she cried. Joy's really the best thing that's ever happened to me."

For more information, visit www.darrenritchie.net.

NOAH'S ARC: FROM BROADWAY TO BOLGER

In Never Gonna Dance, Noah Racey followed in Fred Astaire's footsteps and played a happy-go-Lucky hoofer who always looked dashing. In Where's Charley? at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticutt, he is dashing once again – only this time he's dashing on and off-stage in drag, looking like Whistler's Mother on speed. He plays Charley, an Oxford student, but Racey also races around as his aunt in order to provide himself a chaperone so he can see Amy (Nili Bassman).

Ray Bolger, best known as the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," originated this role in 1948, and Racey is making his own run at it: bouncing on a bench, prancing on a piano and sliding onstage. Frank Rizzo of Variety raves, "Racey radiates pure charm and wins us over with genuine warmth and dances like a dream. It's Racey's show." Like Bolger, he leads a fun and infectious singalong of Frank Loesser's "Once in Love With Amy," but the audience is pretty much at once in love with Racey as soon as he appears.

"I love being a goof," beams the six-foot entertainer. "I'm a clown at heart. I love Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. And this show is such a joy to do. Our director, Tony Walton, is a sweet guy, and working at Goodspeed has been a dream." As for dressing in drag, "It's insane, but I'm lucky I don't have to wear high heels."

Racey's fast on his feet and quick with his wit. Julie Andrews, Walton's ex and one of Racey's heroes, recently saw Where's Charley?, so in the show's tea-party scene, he ad-libbed a line about "a spoonful of sugar" in reference to "Mary Poppins." Later, she called his performance "the sweetest thing I've ever seen – perfection."

If life were perfect, Racey, 34, also should've waltzed away with last season's Astaire Award as the best dancer on Broadway for his fancy footwork and priceless partnering with Nancy Lemenager in Never Gonna Dance. Looking back at its short-lived run, he says, "It beat the hell out of me, and it was so heartbreaking when it closed. We should've gone out of town first. The Tonys [and not getting nominated] was like the bubble bursting. It was painful. But I am damn proud of the show we put on at the Broadhurst. The cast was truly one of the most impressive I've ever worked with. And I learned so much from them. I'll always hold that experience close to my heart. It was my baptism into the leading man's fire, and I cherished every moment of it." For more information, visit www.noahracey.cjb.net.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There's so much to see in New York: Micah Bucey won a Fringe Festival Award for his terrific tour de force in The Only Thing Straight Is My Jacket, and his show is playing again Sept. 13-15 at 8 p.m. at the West End Theatre, 263 W. 86th St. (212-352-3101). Written by Paul Hagen, it depicts the delightfully deluded cabaret act of a gay mental patient, and Bucey is totally committed – in more ways than one – when he sings Sondheim's "Losing My Mind." … Jim Walton (Merrily We Roll Along) and Bob Walton (42nd Street) have written The Eyes Are the First Thing to Go: The Mid-Life Musical Comedy, and it'll play Sept. 22-Oct. 3 at the 45th Street Theatre, 345 W. 45th St. (212 353-3101). It'll boast Broadway stars like Pamela Myers (Company) and offer tunes like "Who Put the Men in Menopause?," plus a witty ditty about "singing mammograms." … If the sound of unmiked singers is music to your ears, catch Broadway Unplugged on Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St. (212 307-4100). Scott Siegel's concert is bursting with dynamite divas (like Debbie Gravitte, Ann Harada and Karen Ziemba) and "Leading Men" (such as Davis Gaines, Darius de Haas and Howard McGillin).

Finally, it's time to announce our "Star Performers of 2004." This column is honoring two younger "Leading Men" for their outstanding debut lead performances this past season on Broadway and Off-Broadway: Michael Arden (Bare) and Noah Racey (Never Gonna Dance). Each is having a career year. Next, Arden will reopen in Bare on Oct. 13 at the new Dodger Stages, and after wrapping up in Where's Charley? on Sept. 25, Racey heads out to choreograph the Japanese company of Never Gonna Dance. Congratulations!

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com.

Until next month, let's hear it for the "boys"!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for The New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for The San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

Darren Ritchie, Cheyenne Jackson, Noah Racey (with "Star Performer" award)
Darren Ritchie, Cheyenne Jackson, Noah Racey (with "Star Performer" award) Photo by Ben Strothmann
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