THE LEADING MEN: He's 'Hot' Stuff

By Wayman Wong
July 5, 2006

The Fourth of July fireworks are over, but these guys are still having a blast: Michael Balderrama (Hot Feet), Matthew Saldivar (The Wedding Singer) and Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening).



PUTTING HIS BEST 'FEET' FORWARD
Michael Balderrama is a sizzling dancer who burns up the stage in Hot Feet, Maurice Hines' new Earth, Wind and Fire musical at the Hilton. As Anthony, a charismatic choreographer, he puts his beautiful new star, Kalimba (Vivian Nixon), through her paces and soon they can't help but "Let Their Feelings Show.” But can their love survive their drive for success? Though Hot Feet might've been coolly received by critics, Michael Feingold in the Village Voice warmly noted: "Nixon and Balderrama are artists of such powerful presence and display such esprit and staggering skill.” In his Act II dance solo, "After the Love Has Gone,” he runs the gamut from jazz to ballet as he acts out Anthony's inner conflicts with breathtaking bravura.

Balderrama has been a scene-stealer in Saturday Night Fever, where he and Natalie Willes turned "Salsation” into a sensation, and Urban Cowboy, where he and Michelle Kittrell did a drunken adagio duet that became a tipsy tour de force. Besides grooving out in Movin' Out, the six-foot-one Texan has danced beside Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan and Mariah Carey. However, Balderrama, 33, is originating his first Broadway lead in Hot Feet, and his former Urban Cowboy co-star Jenn Colella raves, "Michael is so sexy and strong. I knew he had the acting chops, and he's a great leading man.” Nixon adds, "Michael is an amazing partner. He can lift me any way and he will never drop me. But he's also hilarious, and I love that.”

Balderrama, who lives in Clifton, NJ, says, "Dancing is my first love,” but believes "you have to have a life outside of showbiz in order to lead a healthy life within it.” He's especially proud of Samantha, "my beautiful, wonderful 12-year-old daughter,” and his girlfriend is Lorin Latarro, who'll be appearing in A Chorus Line.

Question: Congrats! How would you describe your character of Anthony?
Michael Balderrama: Anthony is a young talented choreographer from The Bronx. He's very driven and has given up a lot to get where he is. He has a bit of bite to him. Then he sees talent, focus, grace and beauty in Kalimba, and that gets him to start thinking about something he hasn't had time to focus on: love.

Q: What's it like working with Vivian as your lovely leading lady?
Balderrama: Wonderful. We've jumped into all these scenes and had a great acting coach in Rick (Khan). Along with all the partnering, there's so much trust between us. She's amazing to handle this much pressure and work at such a young age. She just graduated from Fordham and got credit for doing this show.

Q: Hot Feet looks like it's got the hardest-working corps of dancers on Broadway. How's it being directed and choreographed by a legend?
Balderrama: Maurice can get anybody up and ready for anything. He has this energy that I hope I still have when I'm his age. He's nonstop. He's so talented and he's still around [the theatre] taking care of the show.

Q: Were you always a fan of Earth, Wind and Fire?
Balderrama: Yes. I love their music. It always makes you want to do the show full-out. I remember hearing their stuff constantly as a kid because my dad loves Earth, Wind and Fire. Dancing to this music has been such a blessing.

Q: What's it like being the leading man of Hot Feet?
Balderrama: Pretty amazing. You have to be constantly focused, and it's intense and draining. In this show, sometimes I have to go from zero to 150 miles per hour at the drop of a hat. I try to find the right balance in prepping myself to dance and to act. It's not just the dancing; it's the years of dancing that catch up with you. I have to ice everything from my ankles to my knees to my shoulders to my back.

Q: Are you a dancer who acts, or an actor who dances?
Balderrama: Definitely a dancer who acts. I didn't start training until I turned 18. Growing up, I saw Michael Jackson on TV doing "Billie Jean.” It was the first time he moonwalked. Since grade school I had planned to be a lawyer, which my parents loved, but I gotta give credit to Teddi Burgess at the Forest Hills Dance Academy in Rockford, Illinois. She offered me free classes and got me on my way.

Q: Did you ever dream of dancing on Broadway then?
Balderrama: Never. I started out as a competition dancer. A producer in Chicago knew an agent in L.A., so when I went out there on a Wednesday, I met the agent on Friday. Over the weekend, I booked my first gig: the Academy Awards. Out of about 500 guys, I got picked for one of eight spots, so I danced with Vanessa Williams in "Colors of the Wind” and with Bryan Adams in "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” I was 23, and it was so exciting. Two days later, I booked a Michael Jackson short film called "Ghosts” along with 20 other dancers. We played ghouls and worked with Michael for three weeks. He is very fun when there aren't a lot of people around. He'd joke with his choreographers. He also was very childlike and intrigued by the simplest things. I remember him once trying to catch some confetti with his hand. And the first time I heard him singing live, the hairs on my arm stood up.

Q: Urban Cowboy was such a fun show. What was it like working with Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Colella and that whole cast?
Balderrama: We were a pretty crazy bunch. After we had got our closing notice, we decided that our last fight call would be a naked fight call. The evening before that show, the women showed up in G-strings or topless, and several of us ensemble men were in our birthday suits, wearing just a sock and a rubber band down there. It was insanity, but it was our way of saying goodbye. I loved that show so much.

Q: In Hot Feet, Hines has put together quite a cast. It's not only multitalented, it's very multiethnic. How's that feel?
Balderrrama: Fantastic. I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, but people rarely guess I'm 100% Mexican. They might think I'm Filipino or Hawaiian or Native American. It's been a plus for me. That doesn't mean I haven't run into racism. I've been pulled over in L.A. and gotten cuffed for no reason. Otherwise, it's been such a wonderful thing to be Mexican. Every [Broadway] cast is diverse in personalities, but to add on the idea of ethnicity, really fills up the theatre. You see that in the incredible response we get from our audiences. Young people see everyone from a Filipino girl to a black man to a Puerto Rican onstage. There's a feeling of unity. It's a bold choice and a great one. It reflects our times, and I hope the Great White Way becomes the Great Rainbow Way.

For info, visit www.HotFeettheMusical.com and www.michaelbalderrama.com.

WHAT MAKES 'SAMMY' RUN? SALDIVAR
Some performers know how to act funny, and some performers simply are funny. And then there's Matthew Saldivar, who does both things brilliantly as Sammy, the bass-playing best buddy to Robbie Hart (Stephen Lynch), in The Wedding Singer. Whether he is wailing away on Van Halen licks or singing about chasing chicks, the five-foot-nine actor from West Point, NY, brings a guileless, goofy charm to his comic character from New Jersey. "Matt is a genius,” gushes Amy Spanger, who plays Holly, his marvelous Madonna wannabe girlfriend. "He's an actor's actor. And he's so genuinely funny and honest. I couldn't ask for a better partner onstage.”

Saldivar, who's a graduate of Middlebury College and NYU, says, "Sammy's not written as the brightest guy, but he is not dumb. He loves his friends Robbie and George (Kevin Cahoon). He loves his girl, and he loves his music. He's made a lot of good choices. Those are the things you want to get right in life.” In Act II, Sammy's big number is about the joys of being "Single.” Saldivar, who's dating actress Liz Elkins, says, "I am much like Sammy in that number. What guy doesn't sing that song to himself? You could do all those absurd things, like have a beer in the shower, but what you really want is someone who cares about you and whom you could care about.”

Over the past decade his stellar stage credits have included the Public, LAByrinth Theater Company, Classic Stage Company, Drama Dept. and the Guthrie. Saldivar, 36, says, "It feels terrific making my Broadway debut, and there have been a lot of perks. I went to Radio City Music Hall for the first time because I was performing at the Tonys. Our company is very proud of our show because we give joy to our audiences. I find it surprising that some people, like Michael Riedel [at the New York Post], would try to actively undermine our success [in his column] and predict that we'd close by the end of June. We do our best and rock it out every night.” Since the Tony telecast, the show's grosses have steadily gone up, thanks to its enthusiastic audiences.

In a way Saldivar was groomed to be in The Wedding Singer. He appeared in the 2004 film of Tony n' Tina's Wedding, playing Barry, "the best friend of the groom and a not-so-bright guy from Jersey.” It featured Joey McIntyre, Mila Kunis and Adrian Grenier (HBO's "Entourage”). "That was a cool ensemble. We did a lot of improv. Adrian's a good guy. We've both got bands, so we jammed.”

Saldivar and his mock-rock comedy band, The Petersons, will celebrate the release of their CD, "Upstate,” on July 10 at 9:30 PM at Joe's Pub. Heralded by Time Out New York as "one of the funniest, most original shows in town,” this gang of NYU grads also consists of Keira Naughton, Evan Robertson, Pete Simpson and Adam Stein. Saldivar, who is Mexican and Scots-Irish, plays Julio, a migrant fruit picker who plays the bass, oil-paints and lives over the Petersons' garage. He says, "It's been so creative. We write sketches and songs, do improv and make short films.” The Petersons' special guests have included Paul Newman, John Cameron Mitchell and Robert Sean Leonard, and on July 10, they'll be joined by The Wedding Singer's Felicia Finley.

Saldivar adds, "I got the best fortune ever from a fortune cookie. It said: 'The good times start when I count to three. One, two, three.' Before every show [on Broadway], we get backstage and go, 'One, two, three, Wedding Singer.' We do the same thing at our softball games. We're six and 0. We must be doing something right.”

For info, visit www.theweddingsingerthemusical.com and www.petersonic.com.

MAKING THE MOST OF RADICAL SHEIK
In Duncan Sheik and Stephen Sater's Spring Awakening, Jonathan Groff really rocks in his role as Melchior, a bright and rebellious teen who's not afraid to talk back to his teachers or set his fellow students straight about sex. With his teen-idol looks and his angelic voice, this 5-foot-11 actor from Lancaster, PA, makes a dazzling Off-Broadway debut at the Atlantic Theater Company. Directed by Michael Mayer and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, Groff belts "Totally F*****,” Melchior's dynamic and defiant reply to authority, and the theatre explodes with exuberance as the young and incredible cast bounces about the stage, dancing as if they're in a Peanuts' TV special.

Spring Awakening is based on Frank Wedekind's scandalous 1891 German play about teen sexuality. Groff says, "That's the brilliant thing about our show. The scenes take place in 1891, and the music not only allows the characters to express themselves, but it shows you how timeless the issues of masturbation, teen suicide and homosexuality are; they're still as relevant. We can all relate to Melchior because he stands up for what he believes in. Getting to sing 'Totally F*****' is the greatest gift ever. My mom brought a busload of 56 people to see the show. I don't swear much in real life, but it was really liberating to say f*** in front of all my teachers and childhood friends. They thought it was hilarious. I'm so totally opposite of Melchior. He's an atheist and a radical who wants to change the world. And I'm a Methodist and I'm so laidback.”

For Groff, Spring Awakening has been an eye-opening and ear-opening experience. "Before I auditioned, I didn't know Duncan's music, so I bought all his albums and fell in love with them. He's an amazing performer as well as a musician. To be honest, I grew up a big musical-theatre nerd. My favorite show of all time is Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Sutton Foster knocks my socks off. I saw her six times. And Michael Mayer directed Millie, so how weird is that? I'm originating a role in a new musical and getting directed by him; it's everything I dreamed.”

Sheik, whose Spring Awakening pop score is so melodic and mesmerizing, says, "Jonathan is a joy to work with. He has no ego about his process, and he's an incredible actor. He's very sincere and searching himself as a person; that works really well in terms of Melchior's journey. And all the girls really like him.” Groff, 21, adds, "It's such an ensemble show. We're in the same dressing room; there's only a curtain separating the boys and the girls. We care about it so much, and we're all in our late teens or early twenties, so this show is like our life. I loved high school. I was consumed by theatre. When I got cast as Finch in How to Succeed, I never screamed so much or jumped so high. Omigod, I watched that movie with Robert Morse a bajillion times.”

Last year, he made his Broadway debut as an understudy, swing and dance captain for In My Life. "From start to finish, it was so much fun. Even after the terrible reviews came out, the cast was so inspiring to watch. That company formed such a connection. A few weeks ago, we had an In My Life reunion picnic in Central Park. And even Joe Brooks came. He's just a crazy, fun guy.”

Though it's been reported that Groff will play Jesus in the Paper Mill Playhouse's Godspell (Sept. 20-Oct. 22), he's taking life day by day, enjoying Spring Awakening through Aug. 5. "It's living a fantasy. If you're upset, wouldn't you love to pull out a microphone and sing to the person you're pissed off at? It's awesome!”

For more information, visit www.atlantictheater.org.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There's so much to see in New York: Scott Nevins will join Tony n' Tina's Wedding as the bride's brother, Joey, starting July 6, at Vinnie Black's Coliseum at the Edison Hotel, 221 W. 46th St. (212-352-3101). He'll also host The Early Revue With Scott Nevins on July 17 at 7 p.m. at the Metropolitan Room, 34 W. 22nd St. (212-206-0440). . . . Rick Jensen presents his new show, While Love Holds On, July 15 at 8 PM, also at the Metropolitan Room. And another multi-MAC Award-winning favorite, Lennie Watts, sings there July 30 and 31 at 7 PM. . . . Brandon Cutrell brings his Baggage, packed with pop songs by Alanis Morrisette and Mary Chapin Carpenter, on July 7, 14 and 28 at 9 PM to the Laurie Beechman Theater at West Bank Café, 407 W. 42nd St. (212-695-6909). And, John Hill returns with Skinny Corpse, his wacky cabaret-comedy show, July 10, 17 and 24 at 9:30 PM, also at the Laurie Beechman. . . . "The Love of Look” will be in Patrick DeGennaro's eyes when he sings The Bacharach Songbook on July 24 at 7 PM at Birdland, 315 W. 44th St. (212-581-3080). . . . Finally, don't miss the Fresh Fruit Festival's screening of "Queer Duck: The Movie” on July 16 at 7 PM at the Collective Unconscious, 279 Church St. (212-868-4444). Jim J Bullock (Hairspray) is a riot voicing the title role, and Mike Reiss' hilarious animated musical also satirizes the Tonys.

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.