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01 May 2004

Manu Narayan
Manu Narayan
Photo by Ben Strothmann
If this is the month for May flowers, here are three "Leading Men" who are having a bloomin’ good time: Manu Narayan (Bombay Dreams), Jack Donahue ("Strange Weather") and Chad Kimball (Baby).

Manu Narayan stars in A.R. Rahman’s Bombay Dreams, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new $14 million Indian musical that hopes to curry favor with fans of both rajahs and Hammerstein. In his Broadway bow, Narayan plays Akaash, a handsome "slum boy" who’s got "the look" and becomes a Bollywood movie star in this ragas-to-riches tale. He also dances and romances the pretty Priya (Anisha Nagarajan) and the ravishing Rani (Ayesha Dharker). Set to a bhangra beat, the show’s as big and as splashy as the 32-nozzle fountain that showers the cast during "Shakalaka Baby."

Narayan’s from Pittsburgh and so is Nagarajan ("She’s great and a fine actress"). Both speak Tamil and knew each other through their Hindu temple. After winning "the role of a decade," he and his leading lady flew to London last November to get Lloyd Webber’s blessing. There, they sang their love duet, "So Many Stars," at a state dinner before Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush.

The 5-foot-11 Carnegie Mellon grad, who’s 30, has performed in Fucking A at the Public, toured in Miss Saigon and appeared regionally in Metamorphoses and Romeo and Juliet (as Romeo). And when asked to recommend a South Asian restaurant in New York, he suggested Bombay Palace for its North Indian cuisine — namely the malai kofta curry — and Pongal for its South Indian dishes — namely the dosas, which are like crepes with filling inside.

Question: Congrats on starring in Broadway’s first Indian musical with an all-South-Asian cast, many of whom are making their Broadway debuts.
Manu Narayan: We’re all very excited and happy to be in such a great project and an epic show. The cast is really topnotch. And it’s been great for the South Asian community and theatre itself. It’s the first time a lot of South Asians are going to the theatre, and it’s good to have A.R. Rahman’s music to bring them in.

Q: How would you describe your role of Akaash?
Narayan: He’s one of those great characters who doesn’t let life get him down. He lives in a slum. And he’s an untouchable, the lowest of all castes. But he gets by, by being very crafty and streetwise. The city wants to take over his slum, get rid of the squatters and build a Cineplex there, so he dreams of becoming a Bollywood movie star so he could make enough money to buy the land. Akaash is a dream role. It incorporates every little talent I’ve got, except my saxophone playing.

Q: There were rumors that the leads in the Broadway production might go to white actors. But your director said he always intended to use Indians here. Could Bombay Dreams have worked with white actors as Indians?
Narayan: It probably could work, but for whom? (Laughs.) I wouldn’t like that. Hell, no. Hire Indians. The producers and Steven Pimlott, who’s been terrific, have made a concerted effort to find South Asian talent. My hat’s off to them.

Q: Bombay Dreams is playing at the Broadway, where Miss Saigon opened amid the casting controversy surrounding Jonathan Pryce playing the Engineer. Yet every subsequent Engineer has been played by an Asian.
Narayan: And look at how well they’ve done. Pryce is a wonderful actor, but all these Asian guys who came after him had the chops to do it and kept up the show for years, so it’s good that [our producers] have taken the chance on us now. A lot of the flavor that we bring [to it] as Indians in America is very authentic.

Q: Didn’t you tour in Miss Saigon as Thuy?
Narayan: Yes, but I played Thuy as an Indian. There were many Indians in Saigon. I also played Ito, the houseboy, in Mame [at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera] as an Indian, too. Why does he have to be Japanese?

Q: Back to Bombay: What wouldn’t people know about Rahman?
Narayan: That he’s such a good singer. And incredibly giving. He’s a world superstar, but he’s so unassuming. He’s a genius, and I’m so excited to be doing his music. It’s world pop. It’s beautiful, lush, cutting-edge and catchy.

Q: You can’t get much catchier than "Shakalaka Baby." How’s it feel to dance in the fountain with all that water pouring down on you?
Narayan: It’s every guy’s dream, isn’t it? It’s me and eight girls dancing around me, all wet. It’s wonderful, scary and fun.

Q: You’re also the president and co-artistic director of Rasa Theater, which you co-founded with Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and Uzma Rizvi. In February, you produced a double bill of Eugene O’Neill’s Abortion and Sarovar Banka’s The End of the Apurnas. Why is it important to have a new South Asian theatre?
Narayan: For South Asian playwrights, directors, designers and actors to get better, we need to work. If we are to become the next generation’s leading artists, we have to encourage that. We need a place to fail and survive. In fact, my girlfriend, Nandita Shenoy, is now in a piece by a South Asian: Sonia Pabley’s Sex in Other People’s Houses. It’s at the Lark through May 3, and it’s really wonderful.

Q: And how did you meet your girlfriend?
Narayan: We met doing The King and I at Downtown Cabaret in Bridgeport, Conn. I was playing Lun Tha, and she was the associate choreographer/Eliza. Josie de Guzman was our Anna, and Robert Woo was the King. Nandita and I have been together for about a year. She’s beautiful and the most intelligent woman I know. She’s so talented and caring. I’m so lucky to have her.

Q: Have you encountered any racism in the theatre?
Narayan: I haven’t been held back as an actor because of my race. Have I been looked down on as an Indian? Yes. I’ve been called "swami" or "fortune teller," things like that, usually by ignorant people. But I’ve had champions, too. In the end, this is the way I look, and this is my name. I’m an American. I was born and brought up here. You want me to play something else? I can do that. I’m an actor!

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Jack Donahue has been hailed as "the great pop crooner voice for the new millennium" by David Hurst in Show Business Weekly, and it’s easy to see why critics forecast such a bright future. He’s blessed with a beautiful baritone, good looks and a marvelously mischievous sense of humor, and he appears especially sunny when his Irish eyes are smiling. PS Classics is releasing his new pop-jazz CD on May 4, and it’s called "Strange Weather," which is also the name of the samba-styled title tune he co-wrote with Peter Eldridge, the record’s Grammy-winning producer.

The album is especially music to a meteorologist’s ears: It’s also got "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," "Warm December" and "Blackberry Winter" ("I love how sad it is," he says). Donahue is a man for all seasons and all songs. He gives cabaret classics like "Skylark" and "Let’s Do It" his own spin and tackles newer tunes by Kenny Rankin and Suzanne Vega, accompanied by jazz giants Andy Ezrin, David Finck, Johnny Frigo, Loston Harris and Ben Whitman. To celebrate the CD’s release, this MAC Award winner will play May 6, 18 and 27 at The Triad in New York.

Donahue, who’s been profiled in Out magazine and sketched by Al Hirschfeld, says he’s moving more toward jazz, thanks to the encouragement of Eldridge, who belongs to the acclaimed vocal group New York Voices ("He’s a terrific coach and superior musician"). He adds, "I love Diana Krall, Chet Baker, Jane Monheit, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. But my favorite jazz singer is Kurt Elling. He respects melody, and he’s a terrific lyricist and poet. He inspires me. His record ‘Man in the Air’ and Peter Eldridge’s record ‘Stranger in Town’ really influenced what I did on my new CD."

Born in Cherry Valley, Mass., the 6-foot-tall charmer quips that he grew up "the well-adjusted middle child" of five kids. He recalls listening to Boston, Donna Fargo, Wings and Glen Campbell ("I bought the 45 to ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’). Besides doing the school musicals, he ran cross country and went to Red Sox games with his dad. "He was a deputy sheriff and a tough Irishman, but he was such a big fan of mine. When he died of massive chest pains, I sang ‘Danny Boy’ at his funeral."

As an actor, Donahue, 38, has appeared in The Ballad of Little Jo at the Steppenwolf in Chicago and toured in Floyd Collins. Plus, he was featured in What the World Needs Now, the 1998 Burt Bacharach-Hal David revue that tried out at San Diego’s Old Globe and was directed by Gillian Lynne ("Gillian’s a doll. She’s hilarious, beautiful and crazy"). Though the show was "fun," Donahue remembers once missing the cue for his entrance. He ran into his then co-star Sutton Foster backstage, and she told him, "Oh, honey. You’re late. You’re really late!"

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