THE LEADING MEN: The Best of 'Times'

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: The Best of 'Times'
 
"Autumn in New York spells the thrill of first-nighting" for this top trio: Michael Arden (The Times They Are A-Changin'), Brad Anderson (A Chorus Line) and Brandon Wardell (Evil Dead: The Musical).
Michael Arden
Michael Arden Photo by Bjoern Kommerel

IT'S THRILLIN' TO PERFORM DYLAN
Michael Arden says he's never taken a dance lesson in his life, but he's putting his best foot forward with a Tony-worthy tour de force in Twyla Tharp and Bob Dylan's new musical, The Times They Are A-Changin'. Now in previews, this carnival-like kaleidoscope of a show will open Oct. 26 at the Brooks Atkinson. At the center of the ring, Arden plays Coyote, a sensitive son who rebels against Captain Ahrab (Thom Sesma), his tyrannical father and owner of the circus. Both of them fall for Cleo (Lisa Brescia), the lovely lion tamer. Surrounded by clowns and acrobats, Arden belts over a dozen of Dylan's hits, including the title tune and "Blowin' in the Wind."

The boyish six-foot actor from Midland, TX, says, "Even when I got the role [of Coyote] after all my callbacks, I thought they were joking. I told Twyla that I need to take dance classes, and she said, 'Don't you dare!' She's amazing. She wanted me to move like I move, and that's been fun." Tharp, who won a Tony for Movin' Out, chimes in: "I've been working with Michael on The Times for just about a year now – he's a hardworking and talented young man and is terrific in the show."

The Times earned mixed reviews in San Diego earlier this year, and its cast has been "a-changing" since. On Broadway, Tharp kept Arden and Sesma, but replaced Jenn Colella and most of the dancers with Caren Lyn Manuel and members of Tharp's own troupe, including John Selya. And on Oct. 3, Lisa Brescia replaced Manuel.

Looking "Forever Young," Arden will turn 24 on Oct. 6, but he has polish and poise beyond his years. In addition to playing Tom Sawyer in Big River and a gay Catholic teen in Bare, the Juilliard grad is a gifted composer. In The Times, Arden sits 20 feet above the stage and croons "Mr. Tambourine Man," cradled in the crescent of a neon moon, but the sky's the limit for his soaring talent.

Q: Congrats! You're working with Twyla Tharp and starring in her new Broadway show. To quote a Bob Dylan lyric, "How does it feel?"
Michael Arden: It's insane, exhausting and exciting. We don't have a script, so we've built the show from the ground up. Twyla is a creature like no other. I've never seen someone so dedicated. She knows not only a lot about art, theatre and dance, but anthropology and history. Almost everything in our show is referenced to something historical or political. In "Mr. Tambourine Man," there's a moment when the dancers run through holding hands, and in her book "The Creative Habit," she talks about this image being on the most ancient pottery: the idea of community and dance. Q: You once told us that your dad committed suicide when you were only three, so what's it like to play out this father-son drama? Who's Coyote?
Arden: Coyote represents innocence and that time of youth where you struggle to find your voice. It's about growing up. Here, I have to choose what of my dad — played by the brilliant Thom Sesma — I'm gonna take with me, and what I know I must change. At one point, Ahrab was me: innocent. But he chose to go down another road.

Q: Were you a big Bob Dylan fan before you did this show?
Arden: Not at all. But it's been a thrill to be introduced to such an incredible poet. What he has written is true American literature. Dylan saw the show in San Diego and it was really an honor to see his face. He was blown away.

Q: Jenn Colella recalls that your mikes went out during the first preview in San Diego and says, "Michael just kept singing over the band and the backup singers. You could hear him through the hall, like he won the Ethel Merman contest. He worked the crowd and had everyone singing. He's got charisma coming out of his ears."
Arden: Both of my mikes went out because I sweat a lot, and the handheld mike didn't work either. Soon, the audience began to sing "Like a Rolling Stone" with me, and that was exciting. Everyone knew the words, and I'll never forget that. None of us are imitating Dylan at all; we're just trying to honor the lyrics and the music.

Q: How has the show changed since San Diego?
Arden: I've been told that the show feels more whimsical now. It's the same song list and order, but some of the tones and textures have changed, and given it more depth. The performers were fantastic in San Diego, and they're fantastic here. I share the stage with such incredible artists; any one of them could star in a show. As for the cast changes, that's gonna happen. People move on to other projects, or it's not the right fit. It's no reflection on anyone's talent. Everyone who's worked on this is a genius. I love Jenn, and I'm thrilled she's in previews for High Fidelity in Boston.

Q: You've got 14 songs to sing in this show, and you had a little laryngitis in San Diego. How will you keep this up eight times a week?
Arden: A lot of booze and pills. [Laughs.] I got my tonsils out this summer, which were a big problem. But I'm devoting all my vocal strength to this show.

Q: Like Dylan, you write songs. There was a 2004 reading of Easter Rising, your beautiful musical about Andrew and Caleb, two guys who reunite years after having a passionate relationship in their youth. What's happening to it?
Arden: I've reimagined the book and written it myself. I've added two characters – Andrew and Caleb when they're younger. It has that Arcadia/Follies aesthetic to it, where you see two times happening at once. I've written eight new songs, and hopefully, you'll be hearing more about it within the year.

Q: You once said a friend thought "Brokeback Mountain" sounded like your show, but you had the idea first. Could "Brokeback" make a good musical?
Arden: It could, but I couldn't write something better than the film. Besides, I loved that Ennis and Jack didn't talk a lot. What would they sing about?

Q: Sheep? You could write a song called "Embraceable Ewe." [Laughs.] And how's your adaptation of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" going?
Arden: I've been working awhile to acquire the rights, and that's been progressing. Anthony Minghella, who directed the movie, just directed Madame Butterfly at the Met, and I can't wait to see it. I'm meeting with him to discuss my project. He's heard my music and has been wonderfully supportive.

Q: Meantime, you're singing Dylan, whose songs seem so timeless.
Arden: That's the joy of Dylan's lyrics. You could hear "Blowin' in the Wind," and the lyrics are quite relevant to what's going on with the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Twyla doesn't preach. She presents these lyrics in their truest and simplest form and lets the audience interpret them. She wants to challenge them to think, and that's the kind of theatre I want to do, and create, someday.

For more information, visit www.timestheyareachangin.com.

HE'S LEADING A 'CHORUS' OF APPROVAL
A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett's masterpiece about dancers and "what they did for love," is back on Broadway. With a Tony-winning book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante and a toe-tapping score by Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban, this dynamic dance show is still "one singular sensation ev'ry little step it takes." Now restaged by Bob Avian, its original co-choreographer, it opens Oct. 5 at the Schoenfeld, starring Charlotte d'Amboise as Cassie and Michael Berresse as Zach.

And standing at the beginning of this illustrious line is Brad Anderson, who plays Don. The strapping six-foot actor from Henderson, TX, says, "Don is the all-American jock. He's married and, in my mind, he has two girls because that's what I would like. He's a good guy who's honest and fair, and his wife is an ex-dancer. The stakes are so high for Don because he's a hard worker who wants to take care of his family. I really relate to him. When Don was 15, he lied about his age so he could dance in strip clubs. And when I was 14, I lied about my age so I could work at McDonald's. I'd drive my mom's car at 4:30 AM and get there to flip pancakes and then go to school."

Joining Chorus Line "has been pretty damn cool," says Anderson. "I dive into this piece every night, and it's easy to put myself in that space because that's been my life: dance auditions. After Kiss Me, Kate, though, I wanted to do roles, and that's a challenge. There are so many talented chorus people who don't get a lot of recognition. They're the hardest-working people. I went for almost two years without working [in the theatre] until I got Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific in Washington, D.C. And I got a Helen Hayes nomination for it, too. So when Chorus Line came up, I thought: 'Do I want to dance that hard again?' Yeah, for this, I would. I never saw the show or the movie, and they liked that; I was fresh meat."

Anderson's credits include Radames in the national tour of Aida and Rocky in Damn Yankees, opposite Jerry Lewis. He also understudied Cheyenne Jackson in All Shook Up and went on with only a couple hours' notice. Jenn Gambatese, the cute co-star of that Elvis musical, recalls, "Brad literally had big shoes to fill. There's something Paul Newman-y about him, and he did a great job." Plus, he understudied Hugh Jackman and played Mark Herron in The Boy From Oz: "I learned so much from Hugh, like how to take risks. He set the bar so high for all of us, and he's also a great dad and husband." Working with Jackman provided Anderson with some fun hands-on experiences: "There was a party scene where Peter Allen is doing drugs and drinking. He's coming on to me, and I'm coming on to him. I had my hands down Hugh's shirt, and I kissed the back of his neck. Not bad. Pretty good!"

As a leading man who's openly gay, Anderson, 37, says, "I'm very proud to be out. Even when I was four, I'd drive my Big Wheel around the gym at the YMCA and notice men in their shorts. It wasn't sexual, but I always knew I had this attraction. In high school I got teased every day. They'd call me 'fag' and every name in the book. I had a girlfriend and amazing friends, but I was patient. I kept my focus on cheerleading and gymnastics. I knew I wasn't gonna stay there. Being out has never been an issue for me as an actor. Except for Mark Herron, I've always played straight roles. I think [actors who are closeted] are worried about the machine. They want to be famous. I just want people to think I'm good. 'To thine own self, be true.' If you're good, you'll work."

For more information, visit www.achorusline.com.

THIS 'DEAD'-HEAD IS HAVING A BLOODY GOOD TIME
No one can accuse Brandon Wardell of being gutless because he gets his intestines ripped out of him for laughs in Evil Dead: The Musical at New World Stages. Based on Sam Raimi's 1983 cult horror film, this kooky campfest began previews Oct. 2 and opens Nov. 1. It's got a book by George Reinblatt and a score by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris and Reinblatt, and it stars Ryan Ward, who created the lead role of Ash in Toronto and even looks like the film's star, Bruce Campbell.

Wardell, a six-foot hunk from High Point, NC, says, "I play Scott, the horny best friend of Ash. We take our girlfriends and Ash's sister to this cabin in the woods. There, we find the Book of the Dead and later we do a dance called the Necronomicon. It's like the Time Warp from Rocky Horror. Hinton Battle has done some amazing choreography for us. Anyway, when a demon starts to possess my girlfriend, she whips my butt and kicks me in the balls because I've been such a jerk. Wait'll you see our special effects. Blood and limbs will be flying." In fact, the theatre's first two rows have been designated "The Splatter Zone," and tickets there will be only $25 a piece.

Wardell, who loves horror movies, says, "I never saw Carrie, the musical, but last fall I did a reading with Stephen King of a new John Mellencamp musical called Ghost Brothers. It's based on a true story about two brothers who got drunk one night in Louisiana. They had a shooting contest, and one of them killed the other. Matt Cavenaugh played my brother, and Stephen wrote an amazing book. John's score is new, and it's Southern rock and folk, and really good. I don't know what's happening with it, but I'll ask Stephen when he comes to see Evil Dead."

Wardell made his Broadway debut in James Joyce's The Dead, appeared as the Balladeer in Assassins and boogied to the Beach Boys in Good Vibrations. Marc Kudisch jokingly calls him "a goofball," and Chad Kimball recalls, "Brandon was a major positive force on Good Vibrations. When everybody would get down, he would rally everyone up." Wardell, 31, adds, "We had a lot of fantastic people. If we had gone out of town first, it would've turned out differently. Still, it was fun. It's where I met the love of my life, Sarah Glendening."

Besides acting, Wardell has shopped for fabrics as William Ivey Long's assistant, produced play readings for Johnny Roscoe Productions and played Axl Rose in the Guns n' Roses tribute band Nightrain. But maybe his most amazing moment in showbiz happened on March 23, 2002, at Thoroughly Modern Millie: "I was making a costume change [in Act I] and Catherine Brunell comes in and says, 'Omigod! Gavin [Creel] blew out his knee!' My dresser, Geoffrey Polischuk, says my knees buckled under me. Our stage manager says, 'Can you go on [for Gavin]?' I thought, 'Hell, no!' It was only our fifth preview. I never had a rehearsal. But I said, 'Yeah, absolutely.' Gavin had to be taken to the hospital, and Sutton [Foster] was amazing. Just before I went on, Marc Kudisch said the most brilliant thing: 'No matter what happens, you're a hero. The show could not go on without you. It's all gonna be fine.' And it was!"

For more info, visit www.brandonwardell.com and www.evildeadthemusical.com. WHERE THE GUYS ARE
Hope you all made it to the New York Musical Theatre Festival (Sept. 10-Oct. 1). Among the "Leading Men" who turned in terrific performances were Christian Campbell (Drift), Steve Orsino (Illyria) and Michael Hunsaker (The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun). There were also two incredible concerts at the Ars Nova by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and Manoel Felciano, who staged a stellar reading of highlights from Peter Foley and Kate Chisholm's sci-fi musical, The Hidden Sky. But Heath Calvert, who was a six-foot-four surfer in Good Vibrations, starred in our favorite and funniest musical moment at NYMF. In the zombie movie spoof The Children, Calvert played Harry, a hunky deputy, and belted "Two Kinds of Love." Here, he sang about being torn between his girlfriend, Susie, and his love of the law. At the conclusion of his song, he wildly tore off his tank-top T-shirt. For each reprise, he put on a new T-shirt, and then later ripped that off, too. Calvert, 26, was a riot and had it down to a "T" three times. Bravo!

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.

Brad Anderson, Brandon Wardell and Heath Calvert
Brad Anderson, Brandon Wardell and Heath Calvert Photo by Ben Strothmann
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