THE LEADING MEN: Pacific Heights

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Pacific Heights In this holiday season, here are three heavenly "Leading Men" who sing like angels: Paolo Montalban (Pacific Overtures), Michael Arden (Easter Rising) and Tommy Foster (The METH-od to My Madness).
Paolo Montalban
Paolo Montalban Photo by Ben Strothmann

MAKING BRAZEN OVERTURES
Paolo Montalban is a prince of a guy who got the royal treatment when he made his national TV debut in the 1997 ABC/Disney movie of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Cinderella." The Filipino-American hunk co-starred with Brandy, Whitney Houston and Whoopi Goldberg. He gushes, "It was awesome working with them." And Goldberg says, "Paolo’s got a fabulous voice, and he’s a doll."

Amon Miyamoto, the acclaimed Japanese director of Pacific Overtures, agrees: "When I saw Paolo in 'Cinderella,' I thought he’d be just right for [the role of] Manjiro. He’s very sensitive and always dedicated." In the Roundabout’s radiant revival, which opens Dec. 2 at Studio 54, the story of how America opened up Japan in 1853 unfolds like origami in a Shinto temple of a set surrounded by water. Montalban shares the stage with B.D. Wong and Michael K. Lee, as well as two venerated veterans from the original 1976 Broadway cast: Sab Shimono, who played Manjiro and now plays Lord Abe, and Alvin Ing, who reprises his role as the Shogun’s mother. (Shimono jokes, "Alvin’s gonna keep singing ‘Chrysanthemum Tea’ until he gets it right!") Kidding aside, Shimono raves about the "wonderful cast" and is amazed by the younger actors: "When I hear [Paolo] sing ‘Poems,’ I swear, ‘Omigod! That’s me.’"

Montalban, 31, made his Broadway debut in The King and I (1996) and has toured in Cinderella with Deborah Gibson and Eartha Kitt. His film and TV credits include "American Adobo," "Mortal Kombat Conquest" and "The Great Raid." The 6-foot-2 Rutgers grad also has released a pop CD, which features stirring, rich renditions of "Close Upon the Hour" from The King of Hearts and "Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?" from Cinderella. And he’s a People person: In 1998, the magazine named him one of the "50 Most Beautiful People."

Question: Congrats! How’s it feel returning to Broadway in an all Asian-American ensemble, and in a Sondheim show?
Paolo Montalban: Amazing! It’s an incredible cast. I used to spend hours in the library listening to Sondheim’s songs, and now I’m in this show, and it’s mind-blowing. Both Stephen and John Weidman are so inspiring. I thank my lucky stars that they look out for us and make us look good in telling their story.

Q: What can you tell us about the real-life Manjiro?
Montalban: Manjiro is the equivalent of Christopher Columbus in Japan. He was the first Japanese citizen to spend time in America. He was a fisherman who was shipwrecked at age 14 and rescued by American whalers. They brought him to the U.S. where he was educated and went back to Japan. In our show, he’s got a great arc. Manjiro starts off with a high regard for American ways and wants to bring them to Japan. But he comes full circle and becomes a samurai and returns to his roots. Q: But in real life, Manjiro didn’t become a samurai, right?
Montalban: No. And [how he’s depicted here] is a touchy subject for the Japanese. In real life, Manjiro became a navigator and a professor. Amon, our director, is proud of all the Japanese traditions and history, but he’s also an artist. And if art requires artistic license, then so be it. He’s one of the most passionate directors I’ve ever known. I know Amon has acted out every role in this play, done their choreography and figured out all their back stories. He’s phenomenal.

Q: What’s it like working with Sab Shimono, the original Manjiro?
Montalban: First, it took my sister to let me know that Sab is the voice of Uncle on "The Jackie Chan Adventures." And I love cartoons, and that’s so cool. The wonderful thing about having great actors like Sab and Alvin Ing — guys who have done this play before — is they raise your game level. I even asked Sab for advice and he gave me some great pointers. I say if it’s good, steal it. [Laughs.]

Q: What do you think of B.D. Wong?
Montalban: He’s amazing, so generous and down-to-earth.

Q: B.D. was outspoken during the casting controversy over Miss Saigon in 1990. The show wanted to cast Jonathan Pryce, a Welsh actor, as the Engineer because they said they couldn’t find any Asian actor who could play it.
Montalban: Are you serious? That’s ridiculous. Come on!

Q: Shimono told me: "I auditioned for the Engineer and was told I couldn’t do it. A total lie!" How are things for Asian actors now?
Montalban: I’d like to think that progress is being made.

Q: Actually, it was progress when you got cast in "Cinderella."
Montalban: The reaction was fantastic, especially from kids. If a child sees an Asian prince with a white father and a black Cinderella, then he realizes we are all pretty much the same. It was a great role. I got to do all those sappy things you’re afraid to do in real life, like fall in love. I could lose the girl and then find her again.

Q: Speaking of girls, I hear you used to read Cosmo and Seventeen.
Montalban: Yes, shamelessly. I wanted to know what girls are thinking. And my sister had a subscription. I also took ballet in college for a year because of all the girls. It was just me and a gay guy and 18 girls. Here’s the crazy thing: I thought I was gonna pick up girls, but I took the class seriously, and it’s really paid off.

Q: What do you look for in a woman?
Montalban: This is gonna sound like Prince Charming, but I like a woman who’s beautiful, witty, talented, passionate, intelligent and graceful.

Q: Seeing anyone special right now?
Montalban: No. But for a couple of months, I had a G.L.T. That’s a Good Little Thing, as opposed to Gay, Lesbian, Transgender. [Laughs.]

For more information, visit www.epaolo.com.

A ‘RISING’ STAR WITH ARDEN-T FANS
At the star-studded Nov. 29 concert of Pippin at the Hammerstein Ballroom, Michael Arden radiated "Morning Glow" in the title role as he "came and shone for all his worth," backed by a colossal choir of over 80 vibrant voices. "‘Morning Glow’ is my favorite Stephen Schwartz song," the 6-foot, golden-toned tenor says. "It’s so simple, beautiful and hopeful. The chorus gave me goosebumps, and it was amazing." And Schwartz, Pippin’s composer, adds, "Anyone who wants to do a first-class revival of this show should cast Michael. He’s absolutely perfect!"

Pippin is only the latest "extraordinary thing" to happen to this good looking actor-composer. In January, he presented his first musical, Easter Rising, at Makor. Since then, he has gotten raves (and our "Leading Men" award) for his tour de force as a gay Catholic teen in Bare; co-starred in the John Bucchino revue It’s Only Life; headlined at Opia and Feinstein’s; performed at the Encores! Bash; and received Tony Honors with the terrifically gifted cast of Big River. He has sung at benefits by the score, and his song "N & R" was a hit at the Queer Songbook concert at the Lesbian, Gay Center. Now, Arden is playing Jimmy in a workshop of 110 in the Shade for Roundabout, starring Audra McDonald and Michael Cerveris. He quips, "I guess Roundabout thinks I play dumb really well."

To bring 2004 full circle, Arden is "excited" to present a new version of Easter Rising on Dec. 21 at 7 and 9 PM at Joe’s Pub. Directed by Kristin Hanggi, it stars Kerry Butler, Colin Hanlon and Steven Pasquale, with a half-dozen new songs and a book by Isaac Oliver. It’s the story of a man with terminal cancer "who’s in love with two people at the same time — his fiancee and his childhood friend — and the joys and consequences of that." Arden also is working on a musical based on "The Talented Mr. Ripley": "It’s a great story; it’s got jealousy, unrequited love and murder." Like Ripley, he knows about living under a new name. Arden was born Michael Moore, but since there’s already another Equity member with that moniker, he chose Arden because he loves As You Like It.

As for Bare, which has postponed indefinitely its reopening, he says, "I would love to be really hopeful because all of us wanted to do it. But with all the time that’s gone by and the lost momentum, I think that’s its gravestone." But he has stayed in touch with Bare composer Damon Intrabartolo, who plans to produce Arden’s vocal album in the spring: "It’ll have a bit of everything: pop, rock, theatre."

During the last week of Bare, tragedy struck Arden’s close friend and Juilliard classmate Sarah Fox. She was murdered, and her body was found under a pile of leaves in a Manhattan park. "It was so shocking. It was very difficult to lose someone onstage every night and know that I just lost a friend. We did many shows together, including As You Like It. Sarah would have been a huge star."

As for his own stardom, Arden, 22, says, "I’m not concerned with that. I just want to work with people I respect and do my best. At the Pippin concert, I was standing onstage with Ben Vereen and it was surreal. I’m so lucky."

For more info about Easter Rising, visit www.publictheater.org.

‘METHOD’ ACTOR IS HIGH ON MUSICAL THEATRE
Tommy Foster is an all-American boy who literally has been caught between a rock and a hard place — crystal meth and HIV — and turned his harrowing story into a thrilling tour de force. Called The METH-od to My Madness, this riveting one-man show explores the highs and lows of a bright-eyed actor from Concord, NC, and it’s illustrated with songs by Sondheim, Kander and Ebb and Lloyd Webber. Foster goes from being "The Life of the Party" to escorting in "Love for Sale" and gets trapped in the web of addiction to the strains of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" ("The Spider Woman is crystal meth and her kiss is HIV," he says). After wrestling with the anger and angst of "Gethsemane" ("Why should I die?"), he rediscovers the joys of "Being Alive."

After its premiere in October, John Hoglund of Back Stage raved, "Foster scored across the board in what may well be the most important showcase of the year. His vulnerability and the depth of his performance make this show the singular sensation it is." Foster was just featured in "Are You Positive?," the CNN medical special about HIV/AIDS that airs again Dec. 1 at 3 and 11 PM ET. Plus, he returns with his METH-od show on Dec. 2 at 8:30 PM and Dec. 10 at 7 PM at Don’t Tell Mama.

In October 2003, the one-time Carnegie Mellon student found out he’d been infected with HIV while using crystal meth. A month later, he began to create a show that would address why "crystal meth is so popular in the gay community. I grew up as a fat ugly kid who was called a ‘faggot,’ and I was ashamed. Then I got to New York and had crazy sex with hot guys because I could never have it before. But when I got HIV, I stopped being ashamed. I take responsibility for my actions and my disease and refuse to infect anyone else. We have young men doing crystal meth, not caring about themselves and safe sex because we have a president who says their lives aren’t worth anything."

METH-od took shape as musical theatre because "that’s my training," says Foster, 27, a graduate from the University of Michigan. His classmates included Gavin Creel and Barrett Foa, who recalls, "Tommy’s really talented. He’s got the greatest voice, and he’s a cool guy." This summer, the lyric baritone delivered a showstopping "Soliloquy" as Billy in Carousel at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, NY, and he has appeared regionally in Footloose and Joseph.

So how did this aspiring Broadway baby get drawn into drugs? "I was so unhappy with life and wanted to get as f----- up as possible. I was deep in debt, so I was a male escort for four months. At first, it was an ego boost. It was the easiest $200-$300 [an hour] I ever made. I’d work as a waiter for 10, 12 hours for only $30. Screw that. But I escorted only six times. Then I quit. It was so disgusting. Crystal meth offered an escape."

Though he’s single and "would love to be a dad someday," the current love of his life is Spenser, his seven-year-old Jack Russell terrier. For now, the 5 foot-11 Foster is accentuating the positive: "A friend told me that my show is really about forgiving myself. I feel absolved. Now I want to share my story and make a difference." For more information, visit www.tommyfosternyc.com.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York: Taboo’s Cary Shields and Rent’s Mark Jackson are set to really rock Dec. 4 at 8 PM at the Belt Theatre, 336 W. 37th St. (212-563-0487). . . . You’ve got male when Broadway’s D.B. Bonds, William Broderick, Gilles Chiasson and Graham Rowat celebrate new tunes from The Men’s Songbook on Dec. 5 at 8 PM at Opia, 130 E. 57th St. (212-688-3939). . . . Chester Gregory plays Seaweed in Hairspray, but you can "run and tell" his fans that he’s throwing a birthday bash of his R&B/soul songs on Dec. 5 at 7:30 PM at the Ars Nova, 511 W. 54th St. (212-868 4444). And, Barrett Foa may be an ensemble member in Avenue Q "for now," but he steps into Ars Nova’s Broadway Spotlight on Dec. 6 at 8 PM, with backup from "The Foa-natics": Courtney Balan and Jason Robinson. . . . Jason Graae delivers a Coup De Graae of madcap musical comedy Dec. 6-18 at 7 PM at Helen’s, 169 Eighth Ave. (212-206-0609). . . . Michael Feinstein will toast Holiday Heart Songs Dec. 7-31 at Feinstein’s at the Regency, 540 Park Ave. (212-339-4095). . . . Scott Coulter, Steven Ray Watkins and Lennie Watts are three marvelous MAC Award winners who’ll offer A Christmas to Remember Dec. 9 at 10 PM and Dec. 13 at 7 PM at Mama Rose’s, 219 Second Ave. (212-533-0558). . . . Jack Donahue, who lights up any room with his crooning, headlines Dec. 10 and 17 at 9:30 PM at Opia. . . . And the suave singer-pianist Steve Ross salutes the debonair Fred Astaire now through Dec. 31 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 W. 59th St. (212-279-4200).

TIME FOR A THUMB’S-UP AND THANKS!
Thanks to all the great guys that we interviewed in 2004: Michael Arden, John Barrowman, Gary Beach, Jim Caruso, Dmitri Chepovetsky, Scott Coulter, Jeremy Davenport, Tim Di Pasqua, Jack Donahue, Barrett Foa, Hunter Foster, Tommy Foster, James Getzlaff, Hugh Jackman, Cheyenne Jackson, Chad Kimball, Drew Lachey, Norm Lewis, Joey McIntyre, Alfred Molina, Paolo Montalban, Euan Morton, Burke Moses, Manu Narayan, David Osmond, Hugh Panaro, Noah Racey, Darren Ritchie, Jai Rodriguez, Cary Shields, Christopher Sieber, Marcus Simeone, John Tartaglia, Max von Essen, David Wienir, Patrick Wilson and Matt Zarley.

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

Happy holidays and until next year, 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.

Michael Arden (left) and Tommy Foster
Michael Arden (left) and Tommy Foster Photo by Ben Strothmann
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