By Wayman Wong
02 May 2005

Raul Esparza
Raul Esparza
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Go ahead, make my May ó and here are four "Leading Meníí who can do it: Raul Esparza (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Max von Essen (The Bakerís Wife), Euan Morton ("Show Business") and Robert Goulet (La Cage aux Folles).

Raul Esparza left his indelible mark as the flamboyant Philip Sallon in Taboo, and he was the electrifying life force behind Ned Weeks that kept The Normal Heart pumping at the Public. Now the Drama Desk Award winner, 34, is the driving force behind Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, playing Caractacus Potts, the inventor of the showís phenomenal flying car. He says, "It has good old-fashioned heart, and itís a joy to do." Based on Ian Flemingís childrenís classic, it boasts some truly scrumptious songs by the Sherman Brothers and a colossal cast that includes Erin Dilly, Marc Kudisch, Jan Maxwell and a slew of cute kids and canines.

Even without sitting high in a flying car, Esparza always has audiences ó and fellow actors ó looking up to him. Euan Morton (Taboo) says, "Raul is passionate and compassionate. He worked his ass off in our show, and without Raul, theatre would be a much shallower place." Billy Warlock (The Normal Heart) adds, "Out of everything Iíve ever done and out of everyone Iíve ever worked with, Raul changed my life the most. Heís the most talented person I know."

Born in Wilmington, DE, the 5-foot-10 Cuban-American grew up in Miami, and sang salsa tunes and ABBA at age six. In eighth grade, Esparza played an old lady in a Spanish play, Manana del Sol, and "it changed my life." On the homefront, he has been married for over ten years to Michele. "A real nut for politics and history," heís now reading David Herbert Donaldís acclaimed "Lincoln" biography.

Question: Chitty isnít your first time driving onstage, right?
Raul Esparza: No. I played Danny Zuko in Grease in Chicago in 1992, and I had a little electric car. After "Alone at a Drive-In Movie," I had to drive off in the blackout, but the front wheels went toward the front row, and people screamed. Then I hit a light tower and ran into the back wall of the theatre. (Laughs.)

Q: How would you describe Caractacus Potts?
Esparza: Heís an inventor and a dreamer whoís lost his wife, so our story is about healing a family. He starts off bumbling and standoffish and grows into a father who can take care of his kids and opens up his heart to Truly Scrumptious.

Q: Would you like to be a father yourself?
Esparza: Very much so. I really love these two kids, Henry [Hodges] and Ellen [Marlow]. Theyíve said that if they didnít have their own dads, theyíd choose me, which is very sweet. I tend to be a perfectionist, but Iíve been seeing the show through their eyes, and itís relaxed me a great deal. Itís a family show, and itís such a thrill to see parents and their children having such an extraordinary time.

Q: What would you say to critics who fear Broadway is turning into a theme park with musicals about chandeliers and flying cars?
Esparza: Phantom is about much more than the chandelier. And Chitty is about much more than the car. If you donít care about the family, you donít care about the car. And you wonít forget our car. When I was seven, I saw Peter Pan and Iíll never forget Sandy Duncan flying above my head.

Q: Youíve won rave reviews for playing edgy and intense characters, so playing this sweet song-and-dance man is a real departure.
Esparza: Thatís why Iím doing it. Itís not the showiest part, but I wanted to see if I could play a regular guy whoís the romantic lead and hero. Heís warm and lovely. Dick Van Dyke is one of my heroes in terms of comic timing and genius, and Iíd love to meet him someday. "Mary Poppins" is the first film I ever saw.

Q: What was it like to do Larry Kramerís The Normal Heart?
Esparza: Incredibly rewarding. When I came to New York, the first play I read was The Normal Heart and it opened my eyes to the AIDS crisis. The two most exciting experiences Iíve had in New York have been The Normal Heart and tick, tick Ö BOOM!, and they were both about New York and the world weíre living in. I wanted The Normal Heart to move to Broadway, but it wouldíve been expensive. It is acting I am extraordinarily proud of, and the company was exceptional. It was so moving. On Gay Pride Sunday, the crying in the audience was so loud, we couldnít hear ourselves onstage. Itís a real shame itís gone.

Q: Another show that provoked a strong response was Taboo.
Esparza: Boy Georgeís music is real musical theatre done in a pop idiom, and itís one of the best scores Iíve ever sung. I know there was that horrible backlash with Rosie OíDonnell, but the critical reception was so hateful. I would love to go on the record and say that I donít feel the Broadway community turned against Rosie. It was the press. We got publicity we didnít deserve, and Michael Riedel is a bottom-feeding pig. He once called me "a twerp who wants to be Alan Cumming."

Q: Have you ever been urged to change your Latino name?
Esparza: Yes. And theyíd say, "You donít look the way your name sounds." And I would say, "Iím sorry, but when people see me and connect my name, I will look the way it sounds." The Hispanic thing drives me up a wall. The stereotype of what is Latin in this country is embarrassing. Hollywood says if you are Latin, you are Mexican. But we [Latinos] are so varied. My Cuban mom has blond hair, and my grandmother is a redhead with freckles. Iíve been told by producers that Iím a great actor, but Iím not "Cuban" enough. My name gets mangled all the time. My favorite was "Roland Spicer." It sounds like a great porn name for West Hollywood.

Q: Speaking of Hollywood, tell us about your upcoming film.
Esparza: Itís called "Find Me Guilty." I play Vin Dieselís cousin, and Iím a crack addict. It also stars Ron Silver, Linus Roache, Peter Dinklage and Annabelle Sciorra. Sidney Lumet directed it, and "Network" is one of my favorite films. Sidneyís a director who loves actors, and it was the greatest experience.

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When it comes to this seasonís musical revivals, Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Steinís The Bakerís Wife is the best thing since sliced bread. Now playing through May 15 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, it boasts a glorious score and a sweet story about Aimable (Lenny Wolpe), a wonderfully warm baker, and his gorgeous but much younger bride, Genevieve (Alice Ripley, who soars singing "Meadowlark"). The dynamic Max von Essen plays Dominique, "the beautiful young man who stands before her" and wants to run away with Genevieve. The 5-foot-10 baritone from Long Island stops the show when he pours out his passion to her in "Proud Lady." Schwartz raves, "Max is perfect. He seems to have the right combination of looks, charm, sincerity and chutzpah to bring Dominique to life, plus he absolutely kills with the songs!"

Because this revival features a revised libretto and score, von Essen says, "I feel like Iím part of a new show. I get new lyrics in ĎProud Lady.í Stephen says Dominique was originally so full of himself. His song didnít say ĎIím in loveí as genuinely as I do. Heís cocky, but heís not just one level. Heís not Gaston [from Beauty and the Beast]. Maybe heís slept with every girl in town, but heís never seen anyone as beautiful or classy as Genevieve. Dominique is more sympathetic now. If you root from the first second for her to go back to the baker, thereís no story. Itís a triangle."

"I canít believe I get to sing ĎProud Lady,í" he adds. "Itís one of the hardest solos Iíve ever done, but itís so much fun. I think Alice feels the same way about ĎMeadowlark.í And I love Alice. I saw her in Sunset Boulevard and Rocky Horror, and itís so thrilling to share the stage with her. Itís like when I toured with Liza [Minnelli]. Or worked with Michael Crawford [in Dance of the Vampires]."

Von Essen, 30, also received raves when he co-starred with Melissa Errico in last seasonís Irish Rep revival of Finianís Rainbow. "It was such a perfect fit when I sang ĎOlí Devil Moon.í I felt I was born in the wrong era; I shouldíve been back with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Thereís talk that it might still go to Broadway."

Next, he will perform "Max in Concert," which runs the gamut from George Gershwin to Boy George, on July 18 at Birdland, and heíll be Emcee-ing Sacramentoís Music Circus revival of Cabaret (Aug. 9-14). But no chat with von Essen would be complete without asking him to recall one of his funniest "Vampires" memories: "Asa Somers played the gay vampire and we were in the library, and heíd ask, ĎDo you enjoy reading?í Heíd hand me a book and Iíd read the title, ĎSucking for Dummies.í Heíd say, ĎOops, wrong book.í At the final show, I changed the title of the book to ĎYank My Doodle, Itís a Dandy.í The show stopped in its tracks. Asa covered his face. I was hysterical. The audience was cracking up, and it took us so long to recover."

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