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02 May 2005

Raul Esparza
Raul Esparza
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Go ahead, make my May — and here are four "Leading Men’’ who can do it: Raul Esparza (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Max von Essen (The Baker’s 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 show’s phenomenal flying car. He says, "It has good old-fashioned heart, and it’s a joy to do." Based on Ian Fleming’s children’s 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 — and fellow actors — 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 I’ve ever done and out of everyone I’ve ever worked with, Raul changed my life the most. He’s 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," he’s now reading David Herbert Donald’s acclaimed "Lincoln" biography.

Question: Chitty isn’t 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: He’s an inventor and a dreamer who’s 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]. They’ve said that if they didn’t have their own dads, they’d choose me, which is very sweet. I tend to be a perfectionist, but I’ve been seeing the show through their eyes, and it’s relaxed me a great deal. It’s a family show, and it’s 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 don’t care about the family, you don’t care about the car. And you won’t forget our car. When I was seven, I saw Peter Pan and I’ll never forget Sandy Duncan flying above my head.

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

Q: What was it like to do Larry Kramer’s 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 I’ve had in New York have been The Normal Heart and tick, tick … BOOM!, and they were both about New York and the world we’re living in. I wanted The Normal Heart to move to Broadway, but it would’ve 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 couldn’t hear ourselves onstage. It’s a real shame it’s gone.

Q: Another show that provoked a strong response was Taboo.
Esparza: Boy George’s music is real musical theatre done in a pop idiom, and it’s one of the best scores I’ve ever sung. I know there was that horrible backlash with Rosie O’Donnell, but the critical reception was so hateful. I would love to go on the record and say that I don’t feel the Broadway community turned against Rosie. It was the press. We got publicity we didn’t 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 they’d say, "You don’t look the way your name sounds." And I would say, "I’m 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. I’ve been told by producers that I’m a great actor, but I’m 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: It’s called "Find Me Guilty." I play Vin Diesel’s cousin, and I’m 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. Sidney’s a director who loves actors, and it was the greatest experience.

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When it comes to this season’s musical revivals, Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein’s The Baker’s 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 I’m part of a new show. I get new lyrics in ‘Proud Lady.’ Stephen says Dominique was originally so full of himself. His song didn’t say ‘I’m in love’ as genuinely as I do. He’s cocky, but he’s not just one level. He’s not Gaston [from Beauty and the Beast]. Maybe he’s slept with every girl in town, but he’s 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, there’s no story. It’s a triangle."

"I can’t believe I get to sing ‘Proud Lady,’" he adds. "It’s one of the hardest solos I’ve ever done, but it’s so much fun. I think Alice feels the same way about ‘Meadowlark.’ And I love Alice. I saw her in Sunset Boulevard and Rocky Horror, and it’s so thrilling to share the stage with her. It’s 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 season’s Irish Rep revival of Finian’s Rainbow. "It was such a perfect fit when I sang ‘Ol’ Devil Moon.’ I felt I was born in the wrong era; I should’ve been back with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. There’s 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 he’ll be Emcee-ing Sacramento’s 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 he’d ask, ‘Do you enjoy reading?’ He’d hand me a book and I’d read the title, ‘Sucking for Dummies.’ He’d say, ‘Oops, wrong book.’ At the final show, I changed the title of the book to ‘Yank My Doodle, It’s a Dandy.’ 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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