THE LEADING MEN: It’s [show] Time!

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: It’s [show] Time! “Each day is Valentine’s Day” for this heart-y trio: Michael Berresse (The Light in the Piazza, [title of show]), Duncan Sheik (American Songbook) and Colin Hanlon (I Love You Because).
Michael Berresse
Michael Berresse Photo by Ben Strothmann

THE SUCCESS OF BERRESSE
If MGM were still making movie musicals, Michael Berresse would be this generation’s Gene Kelly. Happily, this acting, singing and dancing dynamo has found a home in the theatre. Currently, he’s bringing his bright smile and radiant charm to Giuseppe, the dashing but adulterous older Italian brother in The Light in the Piazza. Berresse says, “I’ve probably learned more about my craft as an actor doing Piazza than any other show I’ve done.” Aaron Lazar, who plays Fabrizio, says, “Michael’s an amazing actor and a great singer, and he takes what could be a forgettable supporting character and makes him so specific and heartfelt and true.”

Berresse has played Billy Flynn in Chicago opposite Chita Rivera (“I had a good time with Michael; he’s such a talented guy,” says Rivera). But he is best known for his Tony-nominated triumph as Bill Calhoun in Kiss Me, Kate. There, the one-time 5-foot-11 gymnast from Holyoke, MA, shimmied and swung himself up three flights of the show’s set. Nancy Anderson, who played Bianca in Kiss Me, Kate in London, adds, “A lot of people think of Michael as a song-and-dance man, but he’s also a beautiful actor. We had great electricity, and he’s a fantastic kisser.”

This month, Berresse will make his New York debut as a director and choreographer with [title of show], which starts previews Feb. 15 and opens Feb. 26 at the Vineyard. A hit at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), [title of show] is a new musical about writing a new musical. And it stars the two guys who wrote it: Hunter Bell and Jeffrey Bowen. Though he’s in rehearsals with [title of show], the 41-year-old hunk also has been offered the role of Zach, the director-choreographer in A Chorus Line; the revival will star Charlotte d’Amboise as Cassie and open this fall in New York. “It’s thrilling to be asked to do Chorus Line at around the same time I’m directing and choreographing my first show here.”

Question: Congrats on Piazza! It just keeps extending.
Michael Berresse: I think the romance and the humor of it just transports audiences, and it’s so beautifully designed, conceived and performed. And I really love playing Giuseppe. That dude’s a great guy. Yes, he’s irresponsible and immature, but he has a huge heart. He loves women. He loves clothes. He loves sex. He adores his brother Fabrizio, and would do anything for him. That’s what redeems him.

Q:What about Giuseppe’s relationship with Franca?
Berresse: He loves his wife, and it wasn’t frowned upon for an Italian man to have a mistress, but he couldn’t be flagrant about it. Sarah [Uriarte Berry] is fantastic, and the two of us provide sort of a heat. I think of all of the couples as seasonal. Fabrizio and Clara are spring. Giuseppe and Franca are summer. The Nacarelli parents are fall, and Margaret and Roy are winter. No matter where you are in your life, there’s someone you can relate to. Even the costumes reflect it. Franca is in hot pink, and I’m in a red suit. It’s exciting to be in the prime of passion. More people have come back to see Piazza than anything I’ve done. It has such heart and integrity. Q: Congrats, too, directing on [title of show]. What’s the plot?
Berresse: In a nutshell, it’s about two guys who write a musical in three weeks, about writing a musical in three weeks and submitting it to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It’s very autobiographical. Since 2004, we’ve done a lot of development and included all the events that came after: meeting a producer and having backers’ auditions. It’s not just about writing the show. It’s about what it takes to go from concept to a realized production without compromising your artistic voice.

Q: Is [title of show] still a one-act musical?
Berresse: Yes, and it’s extremely funny. Jeffrey Bowen and Hunter Bell are a bunch of first-class nerds, and I mean that in the best way. They also enlist two girls [Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff] who are friends, and a musical director [Larry Pressgrove]. They are very irreverent and speak in their own language. And the show has lots of heart. This is a love letter to the art form of the musical. We just did our first table read for the Vineyard staff. I still laugh my ass off and cry my eyes out every single time I hear it. I believe it. And I have a really good bull**** meter.

Q: How’s it feel being offered Zach in A Chorus Line?
Berresse: If you’d told me when I was 12 that I’d grow up to do this, my head would’ve exploded. It’s one of the greatest shows ever. Believe it or not, I never saw it on Broadway. It just closed before I got here. All I’ve ever seen is a dinner-theatre version of it in Florida. But the thought of the New York opening gives me chills.

Q: You’ve been in your share of classic musicals, and you had a showstopping stunt in Kiss Me, Kate. Whose idea was that?
Berresse: It was Kathleen Marshall’s idea. In rehearsals, she said it’d be great if Bianca came out at the top level and I could find a creative way to get up [three flights] to her. I said, “How creative do you want it to be?” I discussed it with [set designer] Robin Wagner just before the dinner break and asked him: “Do you need that step? If you can cut it out and solder in an one-inch bar, I can swing through the staircase and do a back flip off that.” We went to dinner, and a half-hour later, they had done that, which was astounding. By that evening, we had the routine. It was such fun. Our director, Michael Blakemore, is a genius, and that company was one of the greats.

Q: While you were in London doing Kiss Me, Kate, you gave a refreshingly frank interview about being an out actor.
Berresse: It sends out a good message. Sexuality has nothing to do with your skill or your heart. Shelfing a part of yourself to move forward compromises your work. My work is about being as honest as I can be. I can’t allow that limitation of hiding who I am. Sexuality is a wonderful thing, and it hasn’t been an issue for me.

Q: What was it like coming out for you?
Berresse: It was very, very painful. I felt ostracized even by the gay community because I didn’t fit that either. I was never the kind of guy who wanted to look like, dress like or act like all the other gay people I met. I mean in the “standard issue” way that the media portrayed gays. I’ve always been an individual, like everyone else is. I’m happy and proud to be out, but I don’t define myself [only] by that. I think of myself as a musician, a dancer, a gay person, a family member and a godfather.

Q: What else have you got on your plate?
Berresse: I'm working with Martha Clarke on two different pieces. One of them is a Pirandello adaptation called Kaos. And the other one is a Lincoln Center Theater workshop called Ann, the Word. It's a new play based on the book about Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, and Alfred Uhry is writing it. There are four main actors: Frances McDormand, Denis O’Hare, Michael Stuhlbarg and me. It’s got the potential to be so beautiful and moving. I’m also working on a screenplay and a play. I like having multiple skills. Why limit yourself? In Piazza, there’s a line in “Aiutami” that says, “To risk is everything.” I see it as the center line of my entire work. You have to commit. You have to follow through. That’s what [title of show] is all about.

For more information, visit www.lct.org and www.vineyardtheatre.org.

THE SHEIK OF MELODY
Duncan Sheik is a Grammy-nominated pop singer-songwriter, but he’s been so busy rocking the world of musical theatre that he’s “Barely Breathing” enough to get a second wind. Working with librettist/lyricist Stephen Sater, he’s been juggling three shows: Spring Awakening, based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play about teens in angst, opens June 15, directed by Michael Mayer, at the Atlantic Theater Company; Nero, a play with music about the Roman emperor, begins Feb. 11 at the Magic in San Francisco; and The Nightingale, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, was recently workshopped by Des McAnuff for the La Jolla Playhouse.

To sample scores of his marvelous melodies, Sheik will showcase them on Feb. 22 at his “American Songbook” concert at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Plus, he’ll play cuts from his fifth new album, “White Limousine.” The 5-foot-10 composer from Montclair, NJ, says, “It’s an honor to play Lincoln Center. We did a workshop of Spring Awakening there last year, and it sounded really great.”

Spring Awakening is Sheik’s first musical, and he says, “When the kids are in the scene, they’re in the nineteenth century, but when they sing, they become modern kids singing rock, and what that illustrates is that these issues [are timeless] and don’t go away.” The show tackles abortion, homosexuality, rape, teen suicide and group masturbation. Sheik quips, “It’s really fun for the whole family.” He calls his show an “anti-musical”: “I’ve always loved the way songs function in the movie ‘Dancer in the Dark’; they happen in Bjork’s interior fantasy world. In Spring Awakening, people are singing their [inner] thoughts more than they are to each other.”

Though once quoted in New York magazine as saying “I hate musicals,” Sheik explains, “I went to Porgy & Bess, and it was awesome. I just saw Sweeney Todd, and it’s incredible. I have a problem with musicals becoming the ‘South Park’ version of musicals; overly ironic, self-aware parodies are not my cup of tea. I saw Avenue Q and loved it. But in Spring Awakening, Stephen and I are trying to get at something that is more emotionally intense and powerful.”

By the way, Sheik’s last name has Germanic roots; it’s not Arabic. “Airports can be tricky,” concedes the silky-voiced singer who’s on tour with his “White Limousine” CD. Billboard calls it “his most mature [album] to date, showcasing his talents as a folk troubadour, pop craftsman and all-out rocker. . . . He is an artist who has followed his muse, not the money, much to the benefit of himself and his fans.” The CD’s title tune ribs President Bush: “Who’s the smart guy at the wheel running out of gas?” Sheik jokes that it’s “a tribute to my favorite president ever. When things get so crazy, you have to poke fun at the absurdity. That’s why I love Jon Stewart so much.”

Having written his share of love songs, this romantic balladeer, 36, hopes to celebrate Valentine’s Day by flying in his L.A. sweetheart, Cindy Hetzel. “She’s really funny and a Buddhist as well. She’s great, and this record is dedicated to her.” For more information, visit www.duncansheik.com and www.lincolncenter.org.

HE’S PUTTING HIS HEART INTO ‘I LOVE YOU’
I Love You Because, the romantic new musical at the Village Theatre, couldn’t ask for more of a sweetheart of a “Leading Man” than Colin Hanlon. This handsome and delightfully self-deprecating star plays Austin, a greeting-card writer who’s looking for love in New York — not unlike himself. “Our show is opening on Valentine’s Day, but I just came out of a two-year relationship, so I’m not dating anyone now.” Hanlon wisecracks, “How sad and pathetic is that? So I’ll be inviting my family.” And what’s he looking for in a girl? “A great sense of humor. She’s gotta make me laugh.”

Written by Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Salzman, I Love You Because follows Austin and his younger brother, Jeff (David A. Austin), as they flirt and fall madly for Marcy (Farah Alvin) and her friend, Diana (Stephanie D’Abruzzo). Hanlon, who exudes the all-American exuberance of a young Tom Hanks, says, “It’s a really good musical. I love all the songs, but what I adore is the writing; it’s like Neil Simon for a younger generation. It’s funny and fast-paced. The cast is brilliant. And my character is such fun to play. Austin thinks he’s so put together on the outside. He wears suits and ties. But on the inside, he’s like a chicken on the freeway of an Atari game, trying to run across the road. He’s a hopeless romantic and a Republican. Austin’s also extremely anal-retentive, as am I. I have to know when I’m waking up everyday. I always set the alarm and then I’ll get up five minutes before it goes off. It’s insane.”

Before joining I Love You Because, the 28-year-old tenor made his Rent by playing Gordon, Mark and Roger. “While I was in college, I did operettas. I saw Rent and thought, ‘This is amazing, but I’ll never be in it. I can’t sing like Adam Pascal.’ And it turns out to be my first Broadway show.” His other credits have included tick, tick … BOOM! at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, and workshops of Michael Arden’s Easter Rising, Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked and Boy George’s Taboo (“I played young Boy George before Euan Morton came over; I was so miscast”). At home, he shares his big Harlem apartment with a couple of roommates and Teddy, a 65-pound pitbull mix. “He’s a huge part of my life. I even thank him in my [Playbill] bio. I’m such a loser.”

For the record, Hanlon’s first name is pronounced “call-in,” not “colon.” As a kid in Philadelphia, though, “I was called ‘Colleen’ because my voice was so high.” He was obsessed with TV shows like “Mork & Mindy” and “The Wonder Years.” In time, this Colin found his calling, earning a BFA at Syracuse University. There, he played Carousel and got his most riotous review. The Syracuse New Times said his “Billy snarls and swaggers, like Sean Penn somehow morphed into Tommy Tune.” Hanlon says, “I’m 6-foot-2 and I was so skinny then. I weighed 150. What was the reviewer saying? That my Billy Bigelow was gay? That was hilarious!”

For more information, visit www.iloveyoubecausethemusical.com.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York: If you love the nightlife and love to boogie, strut on over to the 2006 Nightlife Awards on Feb. 6 at 7 PM at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St. (212-307-4100). Produced by Scott Siegel, this all-star spectacular celebrates the best of New York cabaret, comedy and jazz. Eartha Kitt and Elaine Stritch top the bill, which includes fellow Nightlife Award winners Tom Andersen, Karen Mason, Brian Stokes Mitchell and many more. Tickets are $25-$75. . . . For a Wicked night of sky-high vocals that defy “Gravity,” Marty Thomas presents “Songs I’m NOT Supposed to Sing” on Feb. 13 at 7 PM at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. (212-255-5438). The one-time “Star Search” champ is playing, to quote Dreamgirls, “One Night Only,” so “you better move” and make your reservations. The cover is $20 and a two-drink minimum. . . . If you’ve seen Manoel Felciano as Toby in Sweeney Todd, you know that nothing’s gonna charm you as much as his “Broadway Spotlight” encore show on Feb. 13 at 8 PM at the Ars Nova, 511 W. 54th St. (212-868-4444). His marvelous musical director is Peter Foley. Tickets are $15. . . . Finally, catch pop singer-songwriter Bobby Belfry for a ring-a-ding good time Feb. 27 at 8:30 PM at Feinstein’s, 540 Park Ave. at 61st St. (212-339-4095). The cover is $25 and a two-drink minimum.

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 theatre critic for The San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

Duncan Sheik and Colin Hanlon
Duncan Sheik and Colin Hanlon Photo by Ben Strothmann