THE LEADING MEN: Frankie & Johnny

By Wayman Wong
01 Nov 2005

John Lloyd Young
John Lloyd Young
Photo by Ben Strothmann

These three "Leading Men" have plenty to be thankful for this November: John Lloyd Young (Jersey Boys), Manoel Felciano (Sweeney Todd) and Rubťn Flores (The Latin American Songbook).

Jersey Boys, the crowd-pleasing new musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, stars John Lloyd Young as the leader of the pack, and audiences "canít take their eyes off of him." The adorable 5-foot-7 actor from Sacramento, CA, not only "walks like the man," but he sings like him. Heís "just too good to be true," and Valli says, "Johnís a fantastic performer and singer, and his falsetto is remarkably close to my own. I couldnít be more pleased with an actor portraying me."

Young, 30, is joined by Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard and J. Robert Spencer, and this fantastic foursome plays the blue-collar kids who became the 1960s pop sensation with No. 1 hits like "Big Girls Donít Cry," "Sherry" and "Walk Like a Man." Directed by Des McAnuff, Jersey Boys has a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe. It officially opens Nov. 6 at the August Wilson.

As a Jersey boy, Young was in A Christmas Carol at the McCarter in Princeton, NJ, and got raves for The Chosen at the Paper Mill in Millburn, NJ. There, he also met his girlfriend, Alison Franck, Paper Millís casting director. She says, "John does a ridiculous amount of research. Even before he got Jersey Boys, he flew out to Vegas to see Valli perform. Johnís gonna be a star, and heís an amazing boyfriend." He adds, "She has two cats and Iím allergic to cats, so Iím indebted to Clarinex."

Young graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in drama, and one of his teachers, Mark Cohen, says, "Johnís got a gorgeous voice, enormous concentration and a low tolerance for B.S. in acting." Cohen recalls doing an acting exercise with Young: "John was struggling and I tried to raise the stakes of the scene by 'killing off' members of his family and giving him horrible diseases. Nothing worked. I said, ĎWhatís most important in your life?' A gleam came into his eye. He disappeared and came back as if someone lit a fire under him. He was great. I asked ĎWhat happened?í He said, 'I went back to my dorm and found someone had tacked all my musical theatre CDs to the ceiling.'"

Question: Congratulations on making your Broadway debut!
John Lloyd Young: Thanks. Itís really exciting. I auditioned for [Jersey Boys] a year ago for the La Jolla Playhouse production and thought I got it. [David Norona played Valli in its tryout in Southern California last fall.] There was enthusiasm in the room, but as in the case of so many auditions, the phone call didnít come, so I moved on. But I remembered thinking this show had Broadway written all over it. The book was really strong, and the songs were seamlessly integrated.

Q: Whatís it like playing Frankie Valli?
Young: Itís a privilege. The backstory of his career is unknown to most people, so weíre really creating their legacy. Heís been so great to me. Heís full of advice about how to maintain your voice because heís done so much touring. And he told us: ĎNo one can ever change what you bring to the table no matter how many times they slam the door in your face. Thatís always there.í And thatís their story. Itís also been thrilling to play a superstar because thereís so much affection for you before you even walk onstage. Iíve never heard so much applause in my life. Iím new, so I know itís not for me. Theyíre excited for the group. A lot of our audiences are boomers, and this is their music. I hope weíre transporting them back to when they were 16.

Q: Why do you think these songs are still so popular?
Young: Everyone can relate to them. These are songs you play to your girlfriend when youíre trying to make up when youíre 14, or songs you used to serenade your first girlfriend. My favorite is "Begginí" because I didnít know it before. Among the ones I knew, you canít beat "Canít Take My Eyes Off of You."

Q: Your co-star, Daniel Reichard, says you came into rehearsals at a huge disadvantage because you didnít get to do Jersey Boys in La Jolla, but "itís been amazing to see John really grow into the role and now he owns it."
Young: I prepared for four months before I showed up for rehearsals. This is the most challenging part Iíve ever had. I was off-book. I knew all the songs. Iím a baritone, but Iíve never had to sing like this, so I trained for this like it was the Olympics. I swam to build up my lungs. And I havenít had caffeine or alcohol for six months.

Q: Whatís it been like working with the other guys?
Young: Great. Everybody brings something different, but together, itís astounding. Des directs like a football coach. Itís a team effort.

Q: I heard that Billy Crystal came to see the show.
Young: Heís a friend of Des, who directed him in 700 Sundays. He really enjoyed the show and asked how I was still standing. I actually picked up a pointer from Billy that he doesnít know about. I hear he ordered this Yogi Comfort Tea by the case when he did 700 Sundays, so I use it, too, and itís magical.

Q: In the blog on your website, it was only a year ago that you wrote about "staring straight in the face of poverty."
Young: Itís true. I had no place to live. I was crashing at a friendís motherís house in Jersey and taking survival jobs. I was an usher at 42nd Street for Dodger Productions, which is producing this show. I was eating out of cans and having lots of lentil soup. I asked my parents to send me Omaha steaks or gift certificates to restaurants. My early twenties were full of ups and downs, mostly downs. You can work regionally and do a great job, but itís only for two months, and then youíre back to knocking on peopleís doors. Iíve always felt that if I kept my expenses low and soldiered on, there was something on the horizon, and it turned out to be Jersey Boys.

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If you attend the tale of Sweeney Todd in John Doyleís daring revival, which officially opens Nov. 3 at the OíNeill, youíll find itís literally set in a place where "you could drive a person crazy": a London asylum. And the first thing youíll see is Manoel Felciano, who plays Toby, a young man in gray striped pajamas, strapped into a straitjacket. In the original Broadway staging of this "demon barber of Fleet Street," the 5-foot-10 actor from San Francisco says, "Toby disappears into the catacombs [of Mrs. Lovettís bakehouse] and returns with his hair turned white. Heís babbling and goes insane. I think this production shows what happens to him years later in that asylum. He enlists other inmates to put on this play and relives this story over and over."

Starring Michael Cerveris as Todd and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, this Sweeney is a cutting-edge reworking of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheelerís musical thriller. A cast of ten is onstage at all times, playing all the characters and all the instruments. So not only does Felciano, the showís dazzling discovery, sweetly sing "Not While Iím Around," but he toots the clarinet during "My Friends," plays a violin solo during "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and tickles the ivories during the judgeís "Johanna." He says, "Itís like a musical relay, especially at the keyboard. At one point, I have one half of my butt on the chair, and Ben Magnuson [who plays Anthony] has his butt on the other half because he has to jump up and go, ĎJohanna, marry me Sunday.í I take over the piano in mid-measure. Thatís one of the things that makes the show exciting. Itís the challenge of staying in character and still playing beautifully. Working with John [Doyle] has been a gift. This is such a brave reinvention of my favorite show and I just love this cast." In return, LuPone gushes, "Manoel is totally handsome, incredibly charming, extremely talented and a joy to be onstage with."

To play Toby, Felciano researched post-traumatic stress disorder, and his dressing room is plastered with photos of inmates from the real Bedlam Hospital. He first did Sweeney Todd at Yale and played the violin in the pit: "I never saw a musical until I went to Yale. The first show I saw was She Loves Me, starring Melissa Errico, and the second was Sweeney Todd, starring Asa Somers."

Felcianoís Broadway credits include Brooklyn and Cabaret, but he worked for over two years on Wall Street at Citibank before he was discovered at the Sidewalk Cafť with Errico. She recalls, "A casting director called me about Mano and I said, ĎHeís a great singer and heís a great actor,í even though Iíd never seen him act. But I knew he could." Felciano says, "Melissa set me up for this audition for Whistle Down the Wind and I said [then] that I hate musicals. She said, ĎShut up. You donít know what you want to do with your life.í They needed a high rock tenor, so I went in with my guitar and sang ĎEvery Little Thing She Does Is Magicí by the Police. I had no headshot, so they took a Polaroid. Later I auditioned for Hal Prince and got cast." Errico wisecracks, "And he never paid me a commission."

Felciano, whoís Portuguese-Swiss and not related to Josť Feliciano, says he grew up playing Bach with his composer-father at the keyboard. "Then puberty hit and it became clear that playing [the violin] was not the way to get girls, but playing pop songs on a guitar was." Somers says, "Mano is amazing; he can pick up any instrument." Years later, Felciano learned the bass for their alternative pop band, Generica. Somers said they also roomed together in a drafty loft in Hellís Kitchen that was so huge that "you could rollerblade in it, and weíd throw debauched parties for 200." Felciano adds, "Iíd make Asa sing parts of Sweeney to me late at night. My favorite thing was the Act II ĎJohanna.í Now I get to play that in the show. Itís all come full circle."

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