THE LEADING MEN: Jbara and Young

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Jbara and Young Chats with Billy Elliot: The Musical's Greg Jbara and Grease's Ace Young.
Gregory Jbara
Gregory Jbara Photo by Bill Kiefer

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I reached out to the McCain and Obama campaigns to get their theatrical thoughts for this month's column, but they were perhaps too busy. So instead we have two candidates for coolest dude on Broadway stumping in the final column before the big election: Greg Jbara of the remarkable Billy Elliot: The Musical, and Ace Young, "Idol" gone Greaser.

Lucky Jbara
Greg Jbara didn't mean to be back in New York so soon. The actor, so memorable as John Lithgow's enabling police-chief Andre in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, finished that role and planned to stay in L.A. doing the TV and ad work that has made him a recognizable face. With two young sons in a public school, the Jbara clan was pleased out West, and he promised his wife he'd stay clear of long-term projects in New York until the boys were in high school. Then came the industry-crippling writer's strike last winter and the pending Screen Actor's Guild strike, and Jbara realized he needed to be a little more open to a Broadway return. Enter Billy Elliot, and now Jbara is ironically part of one of the bitterest labor disputes in British history. He plays Billy's dad, the emotionally stunted striking coal miner who finds out his kid is a heck of a hoofer. Jbara stars opposite three rotating Billys: David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish, each of whom blows away audiences with the magnitude of his young skills. Jbara recalls asking conductor David Chase at one point during rehearsals, "And I get paid to sit up here and experience this from the stage? How lucky am I?"

Question: Congratulations. You made it back to Broadway after all.
Gregory Jbara: Thank you. My agents, when they did the first wave of Billy auditions, didn't call me. They knew I'd said no more theatre in New York for many years. When they called and said, "Here's what they're looking for," my wife and I agreed that we didn't need to be sitting around spending our savings, so that was the reason for considering it, and now that I'm in it, I'm grateful because it seems like this show is what people want and need right now, and it could really survive whatever may happen in the United States in the coming years or months, in terms of our failed economy. I think the show is that strong and that special that it can be around for a long time. So I'm grateful that I lucked out. I really feel like I won the lottery, I kid you not.

Q: How about on an artistic level?
Jbara: Artistically, I've managed to play some roles onstage that I think are equal in emotional gravitas. I got to do the West Coast premiere of Precious Sons when I first moved back to L.A., but the idea that a role like this is going to a Greg Jbara was inconceivable. As an artist, I consider myself truly blessed that I am able to play this character in this show on a Broadway stage for such a wide audience. I just fall in love every night with those amazing boys Q: With Billy, do you have the sense that, "Hey, I am in something unbelievable"?
Jbara: When I got the call that the part was definitely mine, I definitely had that feeling. And then every day in rehearsal, we would learn the next new thing that they had for us to do. Every day was a pinching day. We couldn't believe it. Even now, with the audiences, it is compounded. You get to the point after three months of rehearsal, you start forgetting about the big picture, and there's so much micromanaging going on that you lose sight of the piece as a whole, so that when the audience finally came into play, we were reminded of how absolutely spectacular the entire experience is. Constantly, you are going, "Okay. I can die and go to heaven now."

Q: I happened to see David Alvarez as Billy, and he was astounding. Are you amazed by the amount of things the Billys are able to do onstage?
Jbara: Yes. It really makes the part of Dad easy to play. I'm standing in the wings, watching the Swan Lake dream ballet before I have to come out, and it is sort of the pivotal turning point for Dad, so it is easy to infuse the performance with emotions that are needed just from watching the boys do that number. And, of course, it makes perfect sense why you can't have one Billy doing eight performances a week. I don't think there is an adult performer who could withstand an eight-show schedule with the demands that that role has. As an actor, it makes you feel like you're gum on their shoe [laughs]. I am humbled. I wish I had that much focus and professionalism and grace, and they just unconditionally rise to the occasion every single time they get up on that stage. They help put things into perspective as well. If anyone ever hears me complain for any reason about this job, just slap me, because I have no reason.

Gregory Jbara with David Alvarez in Billy Elliot
photo by David Scheinmann

Q: Is it challenging for you to adjust to each of the different Billy actors?
Jbara: No. Oddly, the interaction that Dad and Billy have in the show is so fraught with a lack of communication skills and dysfunction that it is free to find whatever it is. The boys are really well-rehearsed. There isn't a single moment in the show, even before performances, that every Billy didn't have an opportunity to run with everybody. Beyond the individuality of each Billy's essence, there's still the structure of knowing comic timing, several nuances, things that seem like they are organic. And these kids are great actors. There are individual nights when they completely surprise you as they become more comfortable with the role and their impulses onstage. At the very end, when the miners are all coming down in that elevator, there are evenings where we're looking at Billy, and he's standing there with tears streaming down his face, and we realize he's committed to that reality he's created, and it's not even for the audience! He's looking upstage. And 15 grown men are on that elevator, and we're reduced to a puddle of sentimentality. Q: David Bologna, who played Billy's friend Michael the night I saw the show, was also remarkably comfortable onstage.
Jbara: We all say, we need David Bologna to hold a class in comedy. That kid, we think he is actually an 80-year-old Borscht Belt veteran trapped in a 12-year old body. That kid blows us away every single night.

Q: Did you have that level of stage comfort at that age?
Jbara: There has always been a certain level of performance comfort for me. I don't think I was ever shy or embarrassed to be onstage. But having 25 years as a working actor and then to encounter someone like him, you just go, "Okay, that's extraordinary." Underneath it is not this precocious child. There's this cool confidence that he has offstage. The great professionals, you meet offstage, and they just know, and this kid knows, and he's comfortable with it, and he's humble.

Q: Coming from suburban Detroit, did you relate to the working-class elements of the miners in the story?
Jbara: The first time I saw "Billy Elliot," it was before I became a parent. The movie had resonance for me, and I really identified with Billy's dream as most artists do. I never experienced adversity from my parents; they were always very supportive, and I was fortunate enough to grow up in a public school system where the arts were well supported by tax dollars, so there were many opportunities for me growing up. But I remember when it was time for college and I went to the University of Michigan. I really wanted to be a theatre major, but of course, my family said, "You can't." Now I have a career as an actor, but I can remember when the decision to be a communications major and have a background in television production was about as far as my parents were willing to let me go into the entertainment field. The idea of coming from a world where life as an entertainer was inconceivable, I identify with that. When I began doing this role and then went back and watched the film, now that I have two sons myself, it had a different resonance for me, identifying with the struggle the father has. The middle class/working class thing, most everybody I grew up with worked for Ford Motor Company at the truck plant in Wayne, Michigan.

Gregory Jbara with Joanna Gleason in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
photo by Craig Schwartz

Q: I read an interview with you from a few years back where you said you wanted to leave Broadway, make your name in TV, and return when you could be cast in leading roles. Did that gambit pay off for you?
Jbara: I think it has been helpful, especially, when I think back to doing Scoundrels. It helped keep me in strong consideration [with producers] because I had so many credits in TV and film. I know for a fact, that on this job, when [Billy director] Stephen Daldry was shopping with Shubert Theatres for Billy's Broadway destination, it was right after they had opened Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. When I first went in and auditioned for him, he said he had remembered me from Scoundrels, so I have to say my stage work didn't hurt me either. I do believe that it helped tremendously having my face show up, even though it is for a pharmaceutical commercial touting Caduet, which to this day, I think people recognize me more on the street for than anything else. Q: I was gonna ask…
Jbara: It used to be as the brother in the film "In and Out." But I'm a spokesperson for Caduet, which is this high blood pressure, high cholesterol medication, and the ad runs like nobody's business. I've never had a commercial campaign like this before where it's TV, print, internet, and it's my face and me talking all the time. So I can be anywhere, it doesn't have to be Hollywood or New York City, and people will go, "Uh, do I know you?" And I will say, "I don't know. Are you a creditor?" We'll finally get around to, "Oh yeah! You're from that erectile dysfunction commercial!" [laughs], and I think, that's good advertising. Everybody thinks because the couple in the ad is tango dancing, that the poor guy's got an erectile problem, but in fact it's high blood pressure medication. Because there's so much advertising for Viagra and Cialis, people will come to the stage door and say, "Oh, and I've seen your erectile dysfunction commercial." And I'll say, "Good, good. I'm glad you saw that."

[Billy Elliot: The Musical is in previews at The Imperial Theatre, opening Nov. 13. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.TeleCharge.com. The Imperial Theatre is located at 249 West 45th Street in Manhattan. For more information on Billy Elliot: The Musical, go to billyelliotbroadway.com.]

Ace Young
photo by Joan Marcus

Ace is the Word
Ace Young: singer, songwriter, contestant on season five of "American Idol," and now, Broadway's Kenickie. The jovial and open Ace was kind enough to share his thoughts on joining Grease, transcending "Idol," and taking Kenickie to the dark side. Question: How was opening night? Any jitters?
Ace Young: I haven't been nervous or had stage fright truthfully for the last three years. Ever since I got off "Idol," I don't have nerves of any kind. I get anxious. I really just want to go out and perform. I was ready, but I didn't know if I was ready. I was at the point where you either do it and it works, or you do it and it doesn't work [laughs]. It was at that breaking point, and I'm glad they threw me out there, because now I'm making Kenickie my own. I'm playing with my lines, my delivery, making that my character, and I love the fact that I can do that this early when I'm going to be there until January 18th.

Q: What do you bring to Kenickie?
Young: Kenickie is the testosterone backbone of the T-Birds. I get to be the counterpart of who I really am. Everybody knows I'm a nice guy from "Idol." But Kenickie's not. Kenickie is an ass. He's blunt; he's vulgar. His insecurity doesn't show because he would put somebody else down before he'd let any of that show, which is true of a lot of kids in high school. When I was in high school, I felt a lot of the same stuff going on. I have to be kind of the darkest T-Bird in order for the other people to have their character roles. The darker I can take it, the better, so that Sonny is that much funnier and Danny is that much more lovable.

Q: So you like to play Kenickie off of what people think they know of Ace?
Young: What I like to bring to Kenickie is I really make him dark in the beginning. You're really not going to like Kenickie until "Greased Lightning." I don't want you to. The funniest thing is, when I'm looking out and seeing people's reactions, they're so caught off guard because in the first scene, they see Ace as Kenickie, and they say, "That's not how Ace is!" And by the second scene, they see Kenickie. Then in "Greased Lightning," they see Kenickie, and at the very end of the whole show, they get to see Ace again when I come out on the side and say hello to everybody. I don't break, and I make people go there with the character. I'll look out at you [in the audience], and if you catch eyes with me, you're not going to be too happy that you did, 'cause I'm looking through you. Kenickie is not the nicest of guys, but you love him anyway because he's the guy that everybody relates to.

Ace Young in Grease
photo by Joan Marcus

Q: It's good that you're not afraid to be unliked onstage.
Young: Everybody loves The Joker, right? You all love the villain. There really isn't another person to be a villain in our show. I get to take it there. You know you're going to like Danny. I mean, c'mon, John Travolta, he kicked it off. He made a pretty lovable guy out of Danny. Nobody ever really defined the other characters, so the fact that I actually get to define Kenickie and make him my own is awesome. Q: Do you feel the chemistry of being knockabout pals with the other T-Birds?
Young: I do. I feel it with the Pink Ladies as well. The crazy thing is Eugene and Patty, the people who are the nerds, once we get into character, they're nervous around the T-Birds. The T-Birds are the toughest guys. We don't have to play a sport in order to feel good about ourselves. We'd rather smoke, drink, fornicate, party with our little cliques, and make you feel uncomfortable around us. That makes us comfortable. Q: Were you a fan of the movie?
Young: It was one of the first films I ever saw. And the funny thing is, when I was offered interest from Broadway at all, I said, "It all depends on the role." I'm fortunate enough that I don't have to do anything that I don't want to do anymore. I do what I love. I get to write for artists all over the world. I wrote a song with one of my best friends I was Grammy-nominated for. I just did an album with Desmond Childs. I'm having fun. And when they brought it up, I said it depends on the role, and they said, "Well, you can't do Danny because Danny's already cast, but Kenickie is open. Would you be interested?" And my response caught everybody off guard because they thought because people know who I am, that I would have to have the lead part. And I responded without hesitation: I said, "Kenickie is the only role in any Broadway play that I have really wanted to do since I was a little kid." The next day, I flew out to New York from my house in L.A., auditioned at 10 in the morning, and by 1:30, they told me I got the part. It was amazing.

Q: Were you influenced by Jeff Conaway at all, the Kenickie of the film?
Young: Totally. I wish I could say everything he says in the movie [laughs]. There's some stuff that I'm not allowed to say because it's a little bit too vulgar for the "American Idol" fan base that comes to the show. I do say some things that catch people off guard, and Jeff Conaway definitely kicked it off.

Q: You've acted before. Was this your first venture into musicals?
Young: I've never done musical theatre. I've performed since I was 11 years old. I've written my own music since I was 11. I've always been jumping around, and I was out in L.A. for seven years. I got to tour and work with Brian McKnight and New Edition before "Idol," just by knocking on doors.

Q: Could you relate to Derek Keeling and Ashley Spencer, your Danny and Sandy, because you all came out of reality TV?
Young: No, [but] only because their reality show was this play. For me, it's all new material. I never sang cover songs until I was on "Idol." I relate to everybody, but I relate to them more as Broadway-oriented than anything else. I didn't get to watch their show. I know Derek and Ashley got second, and they did obviously pretty well because they beat out a lot of people. I don't know if they had a hundred thousand people audition for it like we did at "Idol." It's funny because we just had Olivia Newton-John come through and visit us last week, and while I was watching our show, there are certain things that Ashley does that remind me of the movie, which is Olivia doing those same exact things from the very first time I saw "Grease." Ashley definitely channels that. Derek does his own thing with Danny; he makes Danny his own.

Q: What was Olivia like?
Young: Amazing. My brother and I hung out with Olivia and all her people. We ended up partying with her and her people till about four in the morning. She is a sweetheart. I didn't know she has such a strong Australian accent. It is amazing that she got rid of it for a lot of the stuff she's done. People in the States don't know what a wallaby is, but when she says it, you know it's not from here!

Q: Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?
Young: Led Zeppelin, Prince, the Eagles, Styx, Michael Jackson. I was across the board, Elton John, Billy Joel. My first album I ever bought was "Jackie Wilson's Greatest Hits." I have four older brothers and parents who studied opera, so I was listening to everything from the Beastie Boys to symphonies.

Q: Did that range help or hurt you on "Idol"?
Young: My biggest fault, truthfully, is that I'm really diverse. What happens is that people don't know how to categorize me when they hear me singing. I understand that now. I'm best friends with Daughtry, but everybody knows Chris is a rocker, and I love him to death. Nobody can really characterize me. I did "Father Figure," and everybody wanted me to be the George Michael reincarnation. Then I did "Butterflies," then I did "Drops of Jupiter," and people didn't know where to go. I understand that I really confused people, but it worked out for the best. Who would have thought that in my twenties, I would have accomplished as much as I have, have a leading part on Broadway, and have friends that are so successful and supportive? I'm blown away.

Ace Young with Janine DiVita in Grease
photo by Joan Marcus

Q: Have "Idol" people come out to see you yet?
Young: I haven't had much support from "Idol" since I got off the show. They are nice when you go there, but I haven't had much support. I'm still supporting the show as a fan. Still supporting the show as someone who knows what [contestants] go through, and they still let me visit and see everybody, but I went through some interesting things over the last couple years, and I'm glad to see the changes that have been made to the show this year. Q: What about Daughtry and your pals…
Young: All my fellow Idols are definitely supporting. You could say that all the other "Idol" contestants are very supportive, but the people that are putting out "Idol" toothpaste haven't shown up yet [laughs].

[Grease is playing the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.TeleCharge.com. The Brooks Atkinson Theatre is located at 256 West 47th Street in Manhattan. For more information, go to greaseonbroadway.com.]

Hither and Yon
Monkees and Oliver! fans alike, Times Square Arts Center (669 8th Ave.) is hosting an intimate evening with Davy Jones, Nov. 24 and 25 at 8pm. Call (212) 586-7829, ext. 1 for ticket info. . . . If his show were earlier in the month, maybe Davy could have hooked up with his old pal Marcia Brady's mom, Florence Henderson, who debuts at Feinstein's Nov. 5-8. Fellas at Feinstein's in November include George S. Irving, Nov. 3; Brian Stokes Mitchell, Nov. 11-15; Miles Phillips, Nov. 17; and Stewie Stone & Dick Capri, Nov. 24. It is a wonderful and classy place to see a show. Check out feinsteinsatloewsregency.com for all the info. . . . Rodgers and Hammerstein have not been the same since David Gurland and Brian Farley (aka Gurland and Farley) did their first full show together, an evening of R&H. G&F return for more R&H Nov. 16 and 19 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, 407 West 42nd Street. Call (212) 695-6909 to get tix before they are gone. . . . Jordan Beck and Jonathan May, creators of the new "myspace musical," Top 8, will be offering up a glimpse of their work, performing their songs at the Duplex (61 Christopher Street) on Nov. 2 and 3 at 9:30 PM; visit www.theduplex.com for details. . . . Festival fans, don't forget Ars Nova's A.N.T Fest, the six-week tribute to true variety, rolls on through Nov. 24. Got a taste of a few of the acts, and there is something for everyone. Heck, in six weeks of different shows almost every night, you ought to be able to find something you like. Go to arsnovanyc.com/ANTFEST2008, pick a night, and go. . . . Okay that's all I've got. Do your civic duty, enjoy the election and see a show. So long for now!

Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.