THE LEADING MEN: James' Con

News   THE LEADING MEN: James' Con August is hot and humid, but these great guys always seem cool: Brian d'Arcy James (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Howie Michael Smith (Avenue Q) and David Burnham (The Light in the Piazza).

Brian d
Brian d Photo by Ben Strothmann

HE'S FREDDY, WILLING AND ABLE
Since July 21 Brian d'Arcy James has been having good, clean fun as one of Broadway's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It's a great big challenge to follow in Norbert Leo Butz's footsteps as Freddy Benson, the deliriously crude and rude con artist. But James has jumped in with both feet, and "it's been a ball, it's been a blast" watching this five-foot-nine Irish heartthrob get wild and wacky. He says, "I'm having the time of my life." In one silly scene, James even licks Keith Carradine's face. Carradine, who co-stars as Lawrence Jameson, the classy con man, quips, "I'm actually concerned for Brian when he licks my face because he doesn't know where my face has been. But seriously, working with Brian is a joy. It's as much fun as I've ever had with anyone."

Kelli O'Hara, James' sexy co-star in Sweet Smell of Success, adds, "Brian was a huge cutup in our show. In the song 'I Cannot Hear the City,' the lyrics are 'I offer you you, I offer you me.' But backstage, Brian used to sing, 'I offer you you, I offer you meat . . . any kind of meat really, cold cuts, roast beef, turkey.' He's so funny. He and John [Lithgow] used to ruin each other onstage trying to make the other laugh."

With his matinee idol looks and rich, big baritone, James is one of Broadway's premier leading men. He received Tony and Drama Desk nominations as Sidney Falco, opposite Lithgow's J.J. Hunsecker, in Sweet Smell of Success. He also got a Drama Desk nomination with his show-stopping solo, "Let Me Drown," in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party at the Manhattan Theatre Club. And he made his first big Broadway splash with a Titanic performance as the ship's stoker, Barrett. Equally at ease in plays, James earned an Obie Award for Conor McPherson's The Good Thief. Plus, the Saginaw, MI, native has put out a delightful debut solo CD, "From Christmas Eve to Christmas Morn." It includes a jazzy "Jingle Bells" and a beautiful and heartfelt salute to his home state, "Michigan Christmas," which he also wrote.

James, 38, is married to actress Jennifer Prescott, whom he met in Carousel. They have an adorable four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Grace. He says, "Instead of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, she used to call my show Dirty Socks."

Question: Congratulations! You've often played dark and intense characters, so how's it feel to do physical comedy and cut loose?
Brian d'Arcy James: Fantastic. It's a hilarious show. It's zany with a capital Z. One of my favorite moments is playing Ruprecht, Lawrence's less-than-sane brother. We're trying to scare off Jolene [an oil heiress who's mad to marry Lawrence], so I do ridiculous things like dry-hump Lawrence, play with a stuffed ferret and stick my hand in my pants. But I have to acknowledge the indelible impression Norbert Leo Butz left on me and everyone else who's seen the show. He's truly inspired. Q: Any reservations about taking over for a Tony winner?
James: Yes and no. Luckily, I had an early opportunity to play Freddy in a workshop. I think I did it before Norbert. He had a back issue, so I came in at the last minute. Even then, I had my own blueprint of the part. I'm aware of the legions of fans who are going to say, "That's not what Norbert did." I'm thinking of writing a little book called "Where Are Norbert's Laughs?" [Laughs.] But I'm proud that the creative staff has let me make Freddy my own, and I feel good. I met Norbert over the Fourth of July at a mutual friend's place, and I got to pick his brain for pointers. He's amazing.

Q: How's it working with Keith Carradine?
James: Keith's spirit is incredible. He's very much like John Lithgow in that way. He's a warm and giving guy, and he invites your best. On top of that, we're starting from the same place and that's very reassuring.

Q: What about John, who originated the role of Lawrence?
James: We're friends, and he's excited for me. I love John. He's got a very loose-screw quality about him. When I saw this show, John was brilliant, and I wanted so much to be onstage with him again. The relationship between Freddy and Lawrence is similar to Sidney and J.J. [in Sweet Smell of Success].

Q: How was it working on Sweet Smell of Success?
James: It was one of the best experiences in my life. It was a big role and a step up in responsibility for me. We believed in that show so much, and it was exciting, so it was crushing when we weren't able to let it flourish and blossom. I think the whole thing was ahead of its time. I can't explain why. All the elements were just enough atypical, in terms of the cogs of a big musical: the tone, the characters, the music, the book. It spanned the gamut. It was incredibly fulfilling, and it was disappointing and sad.

Q: Some folks thought you should've been Tony-nominated for Lead Actor, rather than Featured Actor, because you had the primary role.
James: That wasn't my call. Besides, I was nominated for a Tony. I didn't care if it was for Best Stage Mopper. I was thrilled with the whole thing.

Q: Earlier this year on Broadway, you played an IRA hit man in Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. How was that?
James: Extraordinary. It's one of the great plays of late, and I was very honored to be part of it. It's about the senselessness of violence in a violent world. McDonagh is one of the best. He once said that he wanted to write a play that got him killed. And that's the kind of artist I wish I was. I aspire to be that committed.

Q: Did you have any hand in the show's carnage in Act II?
James: I had nothing to do with the gore. But I enjoyed every second of watching [the dummy of] my head explode against the curtains.

Q: You're married to an actress, and your big song in Titanic was "The Proposal," so we've gotta ask: How did you propose to Jennifer?
James: I took her to Costa Rica. I dragged her out onto this jetty of rocks in the middle of the ocean, and I was so nervous. My heart was pumping so fast that she said, "Boy, that little walk out here has got you so tired. You've got to get to the gym." Little did she know, I was dying to give her the ring. It was beautiful.

Q: Finally, you're named after your uncle, Brian Kelly. He was an executive producer of the Harrison Ford movie "Blade Runner," but he's best loved as Ranger Porter Ricks on the TV series "Flipper" (1964-68). What was he like?
James: He was a huge influence on me. And he was my biggest fan. Sadly, he passed away last year, but he's definitely with me. He had the same practical outlook about life that I do, and he had this incredible sense of fun. His motto in Latin was: Semper ubi sub ubi. It means, "Always wear underwear."

For info, visit www.briandjames.com & www.dirtyrottenscoundrelsthemusical.com.

MR. SMITH GOES TO BROADWAY
Howie Michael Smith, the bright and boyish new star of Avenue Q, always gets a big hand as the puppeteer/actor behind Rod and Princeton at the Golden Theatre. But on July 15, the five-foot-nine Avenue cutie from Connellsville, PA, stepped onto a much bigger stage: the opening ceremony of the Gay Games VII in Soldier Stadium in Chicago. As Rod, the gay Republican, he performed "If You Were Gay," with David Benoit and Sharon Wheatley, who played his pal Nicky. Smith says, "There were 30,000 people there, and when we were announced, you heard this deafening scream. They went crazy, even though we didn't get onstage until after 11:30." They were such a hit during the evening's lengthy ceremonies that after the Avenue Q crew got offstage, audience members yelled "More puppets!" Rod is probably the first gay Broadway character to promote pride at the Gay Games, and Smith says, "It's awesome, and the fact that he's a cute puppet makes it more accessible." Could Rod have entered any of the sporting events? Smith quips, "Maybe long-distance jazz running."

Smith, who grew up on a farm, says, "When I first heard the cast album to Avenue Q, I knew I had to do this show. I love musical theatre. And, as a kid, I was obsessed with Jim Henson and the Muppets. My favorites were Guy Smiley and Kermit the Frog. I'd do shows with crappy store-bought puppets for my family." As an aspiring actor, he played theatres in Dallas, Chicago and Washington, DC, doing The Tempest, 1776 and A Christmas Carol. Then, he moved to the Big Apple. Smith says, "I'm completely like Princeton. I came here young and naïve, looking for my purpose." Smith made his Broadway debut in Avenue Q's ensemble on Feb. 1, 2005, and first appeared as Princeton/Rod on March 6, 2005. Since then, he has gone on over 50 times before taking over the lead role on July 3. Mary Faber, who plays Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, says, "I love Howie. He's got such a fun energy."

Though Smith, 27, easily identifies with both characters he plays, his most magical and moving scene is when Rod "comes out" to his friend Christmas Eve in Act II and asks why he doesn't have someone "Special" in his life. "My father was in the audience the first time I kind of lost it during that moment. I could hear people sniffling. They were crying. I really felt the audience was with me. If I can, I try to get myself to that place every night." Smith says he understands Rod's journey to be openly gay. "When I came out to my father [at 22], it was very hard for him. We lived in a small town. Several weeks ago, we took a vacation together in the Florida Keys and talked about it again. He went, 'You know what? After coming to see you [in Avenue Q] and seeing how loving everyone is, I'm getting okay with it,' and then we both cried."

Small world that it is, one of Smith's comic heroes has just moved next-door to his theatre: Martin Short in Fame Becomes Me at the Bernard Jacobs. "Some of my timing and delivery is hugely influenced by him." Smith also got quite an education at Carnegie-Mellon, but he doesn't necessarily wish he could go back to college: "That was a really hard four years. I was thrown into a school with all these kids who wanted the same thing I did. I learned a lot about dealing with people's egos. I wasn't used to cutthroat competition. I had to get a tougher skin or else I'd get walked on."

For now, Smith's Broadway fantasies have come true. "I count my blessings every day, and I'm thrilled to be here. I'm signed through next July. There's nothing else I'd rather do. I want audiences to think that whatever I'm doing with my arm [as an actor/puppeteer] is a living, breathing thing. Getting a laugh is easy, but if you can get people to go 'Ohhhhh' or 'Awwww' with just your hand, that's priceless."

For more info, visit www.howiemichaelsmith.com and www.avenueq.com.

BURNHAM'S A DELIGHT IN 'THE PIAZZA'
For the next year David Burnham will be traveling Light. He's playing Fabrizio, the lovestruck young Italian, in the national tour of The Light in the Piazza, which opens Aug. 1 in San Francisco. It co-stars Christine Andreas as Margaret Johnson and Elena Shaddow as Clara, and it'll play in over 20 cities, including Los Angeles; Washington, DC; and Boston. But don't expect a Xerox of the original cast; the new leads will bring their own colors and shadings to this Light show.

Burnham, who's part Italian, English, German, Sioux and Cherokee, understudied the role of Fabrizio in his Broadway debut and went on nearly 60 times. But he says, "We have a little different take on him now. He starts off more like a bookworm. He's reading Sartre, and when he sees Clara, it changes his world. He gets his head out of the books and into reality. My Fabrizio is a little goofy and insecure. But he's also tortured. I know that feeling. The first time I had my heart broken, I broke out in hives. And I'm in love with Elena. She has a shimmering soprano that'll knock your socks off."

Kelli O'Hara, who originated the role of Clara, says, "Working with David was a blast, and he really gives everything. He's a very comedic actor, and I loved that." The five-foot-ten tenor acknowledges, "There is a lot of humor in my Fabrizio, and for me, it stems from my childhood. I have this soap-opera kind of look [now], but I never thought of myself as good-looking. I grew up this scrawny kid on a farm [in Fontana, CA] who milked goats every day. I was an eight-year-old theatre junkie who wanted to sound like Gordon MacRae. I'd sing showtunes to the pigs. That's how dorky I was. I was convinced West Side Story was their favorite, so I'd make up lyrics: 'A hog like that will kill your brother. Forget that boar and find another.'"

It took Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to put Burnham, 28, literally on the map, and he toured in it across America and Canada. "I love playing Joseph, and that musical has a special place in my heart. Donny Osmond taught me the show, and he's the nicest guy." Burnham, who has got a gorgeous voice, plans to record a jazzy version of "Close Every Door" for a debut CD. For now, he's on the soundtrack of the wretched 1999 animated film of The King and I. "I only saw it once; I couldn't bear to watch it again. But I got an action figure out of it. If you press the back of the Prince, I sing 'I Have Dreamed.'" Still, that disappointment doesn't compare to his suckiest job: "I was once made up as a lion, wore a leopard-print T-shirt and a tail, and sang 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight?' at a five-year-old's birthday party on a front lawn in Beverly Hills." Burnham laughs, "Whatever happened to my career?"

No wonder he's savoring his favorite role ever: Fabrizio. "I'm doing a Craig Lucas play and an Adam Guettel musical, all in one. It doesn't get any better than that."

For more info, visit www.davidburnham.com and www.piazzaontour.com. WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There's so much to see in New York: Tom Andersen, Scott Coulter and Tim Di Pasqua will star in Southern Comfort: A Down-Home Country Music Jamboree on Aug. 4, 11 and 18 at 7 PM at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, 407 W. 42nd St. (212-695-6909). These three thrilling tenors will raise the roof with toe-tapping tunes by Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis and many more. Andersen, Coulter and Di Pasqua work in perfect harmony, and it's worth traveling a country mile to hear their heavenly sound. . . . Looking for a Friday-night frolic? Don't miss The After Party, hilariously hosted by Brandon Cutrell, also at the Laurie Beechman. From 11 PM to 2 AM, it's piano bar for a crowd that adores everything from Loesser to Lopez and Marx. Ray Fellman, the accompanist, is a whiz at changing keys more often than a locksmith.

Danny Binstock, Ryan Nealy, Jason Snow and Ryan Watkinson will perform SSA (Ass Backwards) on Aug. 14 at 11:30 PM at Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (212-539-8778). This concert reading of Nick Blaemire and James Gardiner's new musical is about best buddies who reunite. Also at Joe's Pub: Daniel Reichard (Jersey Boys) will celebrate his Glory Daze Aug. 20 at 9:30 PM and Aug. 21 at 7 PM. . . . And the dynamic David Gurland returns to "justify his love" for Madonna in Neurotica Aug. 24-26 at 10:30 PM at the Metropolitan Room, 34 W. 22nd St. (212-206-0440).

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.

Left: Howie Michael Smith. Middle, from top to bottom: Scott Coulter, Tom Andersen and Tim Di Pasqua from
Left: Howie Michael Smith. Middle, from top to bottom: Scott Coulter, Tom Andersen and Tim Di Pasqua from Photo by Ben Strothmann