THE LEADING MEN: Will Power

News   THE LEADING MEN: Will Power These "Leading Men" feel as "high as a flag on the Fourth of July": Will Chase (Lennon), John Hill (Whiskers on Kittens) and Perry Ojeda (Pride).

Will Chase
Will Chase Photo by Ben Strothmann

JUST ‘IMAGINE’ HIM AS ‘LENNON’
Whether he’s been covering Chris in Miss Saigon, jumping into Jerry’s role in The Full Monty or replacing the Radames in Aida, Will Chase always has had the will to succeed. And he’s proven it by succeeding sensational leading men like Matt Bogart, Patrick Wilson and Adam Pascal. Happily, Lennon cuts to the Chase by giving the hot six-foot actor from Frankfurt, KY, his first chance to originate a Broadway role: as its title character and narrator. The new musical, which begins previews July 7 and opens Aug. 4 at the Broadhurst, also stars Julie Danao, Chad Kimball, Terrence Mann, Michael Potts and Julia Murney.

Directed by Don Scardino, the show explores the life of John Lennon, from Liverpool to the limelight of the Beatles and his love story with Yoko Ono, using his own words and songs. To celebrate his Everyman appeal, various cast members — white, black, young, old, men, women — take turns playing him, but "Will does a bang-up job anchoring this show," says Kimball. During its San Francisco tryout, Phil Gallo of Variety wrote: "Will Chase appears to embody the man." Chase adds, "It’s been awesome to play Lennon. I’ve been a Beatles fanatic since I was five and singing ‘Hard Day’s Night.’"

As an actor starting out in Chicago, he met his future wife, Lori, doing Mame in dinner theatre. Chase, 34, recalls, "I was doing stupid jokes, and she found me obnoxious." Lori chimes in, "He was a lame chorus boy who couldn’t dance. Then I heard someone sing ‘My Best Girl’ and thought: ‘God, who is that? Oh, no. Not him!’ But damn, Will can sing and he’s sexy, so we started flirting."

Lori, who’s now a stellar standup comic, jokes: "When people hear I’m married to a Broadway leading man, they ask: ‘Does he sing to you at home?’ No, he does crossword puzzles and he sucks at them." Married for nine years, they have two lovely girls: Daisy, six, and Gracie, three. Cheyenne Jackson, Chase’s former understudy in Aida, quips, "Will’s family is all blond and sweet. They’re like a shampoo commercial."

Question: What makes Lennon’s songs still so relevant?
Will Chase: He wrote songs from his life. He wrote "Attica State" about the prison riots. He likened what he did to being a newspaperman. If he were alive today, he’d write a song called "The Iraq War." Just listen to "Gimme Some Truth": "I’m sick and tired of hearing things from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics . . . and neurotic, psychotic pigheaded politicians." You could swear that was written yesterday. And though Lennon could write angry songs, he also could write "Woman" or "Grow Old With Me," which you know was for Yoko. He could be such a softie. Q: In Lennon, various actors play Lennon. How’s that work?
Chase: I’m now the narrator of the evening. Chad [Kimball] is the young John’s consciousness. Terry [Mann] is the mature John’s consciousness, and Michael [Potts] is more of John’s political consciousness. All of them kind of morph into me. I’m John Lennon if he were to show up on a given night and tell his story. This show isn’t a jukebox musical. It’s about John’s life using his songs, which he wrote about his life. Don Scardino’s vision for the show is really story theatre from the sixties and seventies. It’s so cool, and I think John would’ve totally dug it.

Q: What’s Yoko Ono like?
Chase: Yoko is very business-savvy, and she’s trying to protect her husband’s name and likeness. But she’s not gonna make this show some sweet saccharine bull**** piece. Yoko has her say, but she’s letting Don do the show he wants to do. When we were in San Francisco, she told me, "Watching you is like watching John." It freaked me out. Okay, now I can die. That was such a compliment.

Q: How has the show changed since San Francisco?
Chase: It’s been tweaked and rewritten. It’s gotten a lot more in depth and emotional. Some songs have been moved or cut, and we’ve added others, like "Watching the Wheels" and "Mind Games." There’s much more about Paul McCartney and the Beatles in it now. And the ensemble has more of a voice.

Q: This won’t be your first time singing rock on Broadway. Your wife says you got "paid a lot of money to make out with Toni Braxton."
Chase: Yeah, in Aida, I was Radames to the pop stars: Toni Braxton, Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child and Deborah Cox. They’re all charming.

Q: Cheyenne Jackson says you’re "ridiculously talented," and when he joined Aida, you were so welcoming and friendly.
Chase: I love that man. He went from my cover to Jarrod [Emick’s] cover to a giant billboard in Times Square. Now that’s a little big. [Laughs.] When I stood by for Adam [Pascal] in Aida or Matt Bogart in Miss Saigon, they were welcoming to me, too. I’m so proud of Cheyenne. And I’m proud of Norbert [Leo Butz], who’s one of my dearest friends. The day after the Tonys, he came over with his girls, and my wife’s got a video of him swimming in our pool with his Tony in the foreground. We’re all a little different, and I think there’s room for all of us.

Q: You’ve done Miss Saigon on tour, but also on Broadway and in the Philippines with Lea Salonga, so what’s she like?
Chase: Lea’s great. We hit it off and became fast friends. She’s sweet and speaks from her heart. She’ll kill me for telling you this, but we had this backstage backgammon tournament, and when someone was winning, he’d say, "I’m f****** that ass." Cut to Lea’s last night. At the curtain call, she says, "You guys, thanks so much. This time around has been so great. The last time I was here, I was so young. And thanks for letting me f*** that ass." Our jaws hit the ground.

Q: Finally, how did you propose to Lori?
Chase: We’d been dating for a couple of years, and Lori gave me the s*** or get off the pot speech, so she expected to get a ring on Christmas. But I gave her a decoy diamond necklace. The next day, I drove her to the theatre in Columbus where she was playing Bombalurina in Cats. I had to drive off to Cincinnati to do Miss Saigon. But I actually hid in Grizabella’s dressing room. Lori was giving a backstage tour to my family, which was visiting, and she had her Cats makeup on. Then I popped out of the giant drainpipe onstage, dressed in a blazer. I had the ring and I was shaking. I stammered like a moron and asked Lori to marry me. She was so excited that she never even gave me an answer. During the show, she came into the audience in her Cats costume and sat on my lap and finally said yes.

For more information, visit www.will-chase.com.

HILL’S ALIVE WITH THE SOUND OF LAUGHTER
John Hill burst onto Broadway as Fender in Hairspray and Mark Herron in The Boy From Oz, but he really made his mark Off-Broadway with his bravura work in Bare. He played a Catholic teen who loves another boy (played by Michael Arden) but feels tormented about coming out in Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere Jr.’s powerful pop opera. Now, the six foot-two actor from San Antonio, TX, is about to Bare his soul — and his sidesplitting sense of humor — with his one-man show, Whiskers on Kittens, on July 11 at 7 PM at The Encore, 266 W. 47th St. (212-221-3960). Why the catty title? Hill, 26, says, "It’s supposed to evoke a feeling of warmth and fuzziness with a hint of aggression lurking beneath the surface. I’ve noticed that many cabaret acts are about performers telling about their childhood, their first love and their start in showbiz. I’m going to tell stories about mine, just satirized. And I’ll sing songs ranging from Gwen Stefani to Stevie Nicks. It’ll be a lot of fun!"

As a kid, Hill loved to dress up as "WonderDavy," a character who raced around in a Davy Crockett cap and a Wonder Woman cape. After years of community theatre and church musicals, he got his first professional singing job at Six Flags Fiesta Texas. In Now That’s Country, he sang the hits of Garth Brooks and George Strait and "learned the importance of not eating funnel cakes in between shows."

His Broadway break came with Hairspray, in which he also covered the role of Link Larkin: "I was once told: ‘Wow, you can’t dance as good as Matt Morrison, but you acted good.’" He also understudied Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz and says, "Hugh is one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. I definitely thought I was going to go on as Peter Allen. They didn’t drop the bomb that no one was ever going on until a couple of months into the run. They kept it from us until we couldn’t quit."

Hill’s next show was Bare: "It was great, and I loved that cast." His co-star, Arden, adds: "It was a very serious piece, but John kept me smiling. We had terrific chemistry. Even at the audition, we connected and John took me out for sushi. He’s very funny." Bare played in the spring of 2004 at the American Theatre of Actors and was said to reopen at Dodger Stages last fall, but despite various announcements, never did. Hill says, "I don’t know why. The minute I was told I didn’t have a job for the fourth time, I didn’t want to get jerked around, so I moved on."

And he’s moved on to some incredible company. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the Tony-winning team from Hairspray, have hired him to be a writer’s assistant to Martin Short on his Broadway-bound solo show, If I’d Saved, I Wouldn’t Be Here. Hill says, "I [might] throw in ideas, but usually I sit quietly and take notes. Working with Martin is great because he’s wonderful to be around, but also because it’s been a chance to develop my writing, and that’s what I’m trying to cultivate."

For more information, visit www.johnhillonline.com.

NEW SOLO SHOW IS HIS ‘PRIDE’ AND JOY
Ever since he was a showtune-loving Mormon boy in Adrian, MI, Perry Ojeda knew he was a Broadway baby. But it took George C. Wolfe’s 1999 revival of On the Town to turn him into a Broadway Gabey. The six-foot leading man played the lovesick sailor on leave in "New York, New York, a helluva town," and Ben Brantley of the New York Times praised his "wistful tenor that shimmers fetchingly."

Ojeda also wrote and starred in The Trick, a tour de force about a gay actor grappling with love and life. It premiered at Dixon Place and played for weeks at The Duplex and La Mama. As if to prove he’s no one-Trick pony, Ojeda is back at Dixon Place on July 15 and 16 at 7:30 PM with a new solo show called Pride, also directed by Karen Azenberg. He says, "I want to explore the experience, alienation and vilification of gay men and women in George W’s America."

Ojeda, who’s Mexican on his father’s side and English-German on his mother’s, portrays 13 characters in Pride. They include an ex-gay attending a "Homosexuals Anonymous" meeting; a Southern belle trying to fix her son up with a "Lincoln Log Republican," and a Chelsea boy who dreams he’s at a straight pride parade. He also plays a ballet-dancing hustler and a lesbian Sunday-school teacher. Influenced by Tim Miller, Whoopi Goldberg and Ira Siff of La Gran Scena Opera Co., Ojeda brings his creations to life with lots of humor and humanity, but no costumes or props.

He says, "Pride has been such fun to do. I love combining comedy, dance and musical theatre [with songs co-written with Randy Redd]. I grew up in a conservative family, and Broadway musicals saved my life. I identified with Mama Rose. I identified with the Sharks and the Jets. Mormons love to sing and put on shows. Just think of the Osmonds." (His boyfriend, John Curtis Michael, "who’s a joy," is also formerly Mormon and used to be a dancer on "The Donny and Marie Show.")

As a kid, Ojeda took ballet, and "I knew I was gay when I was eight. When boys teased my little sister, I would threaten to kiss them, and they’d call me a 'fag.' And that’s the one thing I couldn’t be. The Mormon church thinks homosexuals are worse than murderers and rapists. In high school I coerced girl friends to buy me Playgirl, 'just for research, so I could compare how I looked to other guys.'"

Ojeda, 36, has received raves, most recently for playing a tough gay American G.I. in Frank McGuinness’ World War II drama Dolly West’s Kitchen in London and Dublin. And, he’ll play the bisexual Cliff in Cabaret at the Sacramento Music Circus (Aug. 9-14). "I want to play the gay roles. When I was a kid, there weren’t beautiful, handsome and talented men who were out, like Cheyenne Jackson and Christopher Sieber. I hope I can be part of this wave of out gay artists. But unless we all come out as a community, society will keep demonizing us." For more info, visit www.perryojeda.com and www.dixonplace.org.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
Each season we salute a "Leading Man" for his outstanding Broadway or Off Broadway debut, and this year’s "Star Performer of 2005" is Cheyenne Jackson (All Shook Up). Elvis Presley left pretty big "Blue Suede Shoes" to fill and most any actor would’ve been All Shook Up by any comparisons, but not Jackson. He turned Chad into an original comic creation with a Tony-worthy tour de force. The fact that Jackson happens to be out only adds to the resonance of the show’s stirring anthem "If I Can Dream." Whether you’re white or black, straight or gay, he says, "That song’s about everybody. ‘If I can dream of a better land where all of my brothers walk hand in hand.’ Can’t we all get along and love each other?" The six-foot-three hunk turns 30 on July 12, and will shine a Broadway Spotlight on his All Shook Up castmates on July 25 at 7 PM at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. (212-255-5438). Among them: Justin Bohon, Stephen Oremus, Justin Patterson and Michael Scott. This show is part of Scott Alan’s marvelous Monday Nights, New Voices series, which celebrates rising talent. . . .

Like the cast in 42nd Street, are you "getting out of town"? Here’s a sampling of best bets: Tommy Foster brings his brilliant Bistro Award-winning show, The METH-od to My Madness, July 7-9 and 14-16 at 9 PM to the Actors Theatre in Charlotte, N.C. (704-342-2251). . . . Matt Cavenaugh goes for the brass ring as Billy Bigelow in Carousel on July 26-31 at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera (412-456 6666). . . . Award-winning pop singer-songwriter Tom Andersen headlines July 31 at 7 and 9:30 PM at the Nancy LaMott Room at the Bradstan Country Hotel in White Lake, N.Y. (845-583-4114). . . . Finally, if you’re planning further ahead, it’s official: John Tartaglia says he’ll star in Avenue Q from Aug. 27-Dec. 19 at the Wynn Las Vegas (888-320-7123).

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

John Hill (left) and Perry Ojeda
John Hill (left) and Perry Ojeda Photo by Ben Strothmann