THE LEADING MEN: Here’s Johnny!

News   THE LEADING MEN: Here’s Johnny!
Every day is Labor Day for these three hardworking young actors: John Tartaglia (Avenue Q in Las Vegas), Ben Curtis (Joy) and Richard Todd Adams (Plane Crazy).

John Tartaglia
John Tartaglia Photo by Ben Strothmann

Steve Wynn is betting millions that the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q will play to full houses in his king-sized casino, Wynn Las Vegas. Just to stack the deck, he built a 1,200-seat theatre, and the new company stars his two aces in the hole: John Tartaglia and Rick Lyon from the brilliant original Broadway cast. Tartaglia, 27, says, "I’d never been to Vegas, but I love it. It’s like Disney World on crack for adults." Under Jason Moore’s deft direction, the Tony-winning team of Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty have tweaked their puppet and people-pleasing musical. Avenue Q will open Sept. 8 with brighter costumes, whiter lighting and little line and lyric changes. Tartaglia says, "It’s cool. It’s given everyone a chance to do things that we never got to do on Broadway because of budget or time." Happily, Avenue Q is still as lovable and loaded with laughs as ever, full of wit and wisdom.

The Vegas version also has hit the jackpot with an exclusive slew of Avenue Q souvenirs. Besides pins, pens and postcards, you can buy "More Drinks, More Fun" shot glasses, "Yeah, They’re Real" tank tops and Lucy the Slut feather boas. Lyon promises that hand puppets are on their way, probably in December. Tartaglia adds, "The merchandise is really beautiful and fun, and it’s in tune with the show."

Question: Congrats! You’ve spent about five years doing Avenue Q — developing it, playing it Off-Broadway and on Broadway. Then you left in January. How’s it feel to return and open a company in Las Vegas?
John Tartaglia: It’s a little bizarre. It’s like going back to relive your life, and I left the show on such a high. It was over. When I was asked to do Vegas, I thought long and hard about it. We had created the show, especially with the seven original cast members, and we became a family. The more I thought about it, Steve Wynn has been so generous to me and Rick that I decided to take a chance, and I’m really glad I did. Wynn’s built us a gorgeous theatre [with ruby-red seats and coral walls]. And, everyone in this cast is fantastic. I call it Avenue Q: The Next Generation.

Q: Avenue Q plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 6:30 and 10 PM in Vegas. That’s ten shows a week. How many do you do?
Tartaglia: There are two casts: I’m in the Blue Bear cast, along with Rick, and Jonathan Root heads the Yellow Bear cast. I’m doing six shows a week, but most everyone else does five. There’s no schedule so far. It’s gonna change each week. If you check the Guest Book on my website, I’ll post it as soon as I know. And, if you give the box office 24 hours’ notice, they’ll be happy to switch your tickets.

Q: How has the show been tweaked for Las Vegas?
Tartaglia: Certain things wouldn’t be familiar to a Vegas audience, so we cut the MetroCard joke. We replaced it with a joke about a ticket stub to The Thunder From Down Under [a male strip show]. We changed the lyric about "You could win the Lotto" to "You could step in dog s***." We trimmed ‘The Money Song’ to move it along. People here aren’t used to sitting for two hours. We’re one of the only shows with an intermission. Many Vegas shows are [90-minute] spectacles; people aren’t individualized as characters. They’re used to seeing people do triple flips or jackknife into a pool. Some of our audiences have never seen a Broadway show, but we’re getting standing ovations. Lucy the Slut gets a bigger reaction here because she’s very much like a showgirl. And she gets a stripper pole now, which I love. They go wild over "The Internet Is for Porn," and we get a bigger reaction than ever to the puppet sex because it’s got that Sin City feel. Most Vegas shows are about sex. Even at the Treasure Island casino, their show is about naked women on a pirate ship dancing to techno. Q: In Vegas, you get a brief reprise of "It Sucks to Be Me" in Act II.
Tartaglia: It’s my favorite new part of the show. Even on Broadway, we all agreed that the opening of Act II didn’t work, so it’s exciting to have something new to play with. When Princeton sings it in the opening number, he sings it because everyone else is. But later, he sings it because he thinks being 23 is so old, and the audience laughs hysterically. "There Is Life Outside Your Apartment" is stronger now, too. It’s got a rockier arrangement [by Stephen Oremus] that wakes you up.

Q: How has Vegas responded to a gay puppet like Rod?
Tartaglia: It takes them awhile to get behind him. They laugh at "If You Were Gay" because it’s funny. His first scene with Christmas Eve is kind of uncomfortable, but people feel for him at the end of "Fantasies Come True" and they cheer for him at the end. Rod isn’t just gay; he has all these different sides to him.

Q: How does the George Bush joke go over in a red state like Nevada?
Tartaglia: Mixed. Those who really agree give a loud response, but there are also a lot of stern faces. But I think we’ve been getting a stronger reaction lately because many people are angry at Bush over Hurricane Katrina. As a Democrat, if I went to a show that made a joke about Bill Clinton, I’d just laugh it off.

Q: How long will you be doing Avenue Q in Vegas?
Tartaglia: I’m signed through Dec. 12, but I might extend. I’ve bonded so much with this cast. I’d love to do Avenue Q in London, but I know they’re interested in having an all-British cast. I’m also working on my children’s show, "Johnny and the Sprites," for the Disney Channel. We’ve shot four musical shorts, and they’ll air next month. We hope to go to series in the spring. I want to create a safe haven for kids that deals with their real issues; it’s not about finding a letter or number. The music will be the kind of music you could hear on the radio. I’m really proud of it.

Q: Finally, thanks for hosting our "Leading Men" concert, featuring fantastic guys from Broadway and cabaret, for Broadway Cares back in May.
Tartaglia: It was my honor. It was so much fun to spend the night with all my friends. Everyone does these concerts with women screaming at the top of their lungs, but no one gives the guys a chance, so it was exciting for all of us.

Q: By chance, a number of the performers — Tom Andersen, Cheyenne Jackson, Jai Rodriguez, Christopher Sieber and you — were out.
Tartaglia: That’s great. The more people live their lives openly and freely, the less it’ll be a big deal. It’s not the easy road. The easy road in Hollywood is to say you’re not gay and cover it up. If half of the celebrities who are gay would come out, it would not only help gay people and gay teens but everyone else. The people I know who are out might not be making millions like Tom Cruise, but they’re successful and happy, and I’d rather be happy with my life and not walk around and lie.

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As Steven, the Dell computer dude, Ben Curtis really clicked with TV audiences. But he’s now experiencing the greatest Joy of his life: getting loads of laughs and rave reviews in John Fisher’s gay romantic comedy at the Actors’ Playhouse. The six-foot charmer from Chattanooga, TN, plays a sweet-faced stoner named Christian, and his deadpan delivery and goofy grin make him such an endearing delight. Directed by Ben Rimalower, Joy follows seven gay and lesbian friends in San Francisco and stars Paul Whitthorne, Christopher Sloan and Ken Barnett. At first, Christian is seen going out with a gal, but soon he’s sleeping with a guy. Curtis says, "Christian is a free-loving boytoy and explores his sexuality through experimentation. I don’t see Joy as a gay play. It’s a play about sexuality, and it’s a beautiful story."

Curtis, who has a bisexual sister, knows the show’s issues firsthand: "My father is openly gay. He really loved my mother, but their marriage fell apart. When they separated, he told me he was bisexual and unfortunately, I was 12 and trying to figure out my own sexuality. I was really upset and angry and took me a long time to get over it. I’ve seen him suffer. Now we’re best friends, and he’s seen Joy many times."

Asked if he’s ever "experimented" like his character, Christian, Curtis says, "Absolutely, yeah. I appreciate men just as much as women, but I lean toward the female side." So is it fair to say he’s straight? "Umm … I’d say I’m straight, but I’m open-minded. As Darryl says in the show, ‘I’m straight, but I’m not narrow.’" Curtis, who even dresses in drag in Joy, adds, "I love it. It’s fun to bend ideals about gender." Currently single, he says he had his most romantic date when he was 17. "I blindfolded my girlfriend at night and led her into the woods, where I had a blanket, rose petals, champagne and candles. I played a song I wrote for her, and the rest of the night turned out great."

Though the Dell commercials were "a great way to make money and pay for college," the one-time NYU student says, "Suddenly everyone was recognizing me and yelling at me. It was very traumatic. I had moved into Ground Zero before Sept. 11. I really needed to get help and therapy, but the Dell commercials exploded. It was too much, too soon. I got arrested for buying a small amount of marijuana, and it was horrible. I spent the night in jail and was handcuffed to a wheelchair in Bellevue. But it was great because it helped put a stop to a vicious downward spiral I was going through."

Meantime, Curtis has made "Raccoon," an award-winning short that will premiere in Montreal and Palm Springs film festivals this month. "It’s an amazing story about two best friends during the Vietnam draft. We shot during a blizzard in upstate New York, and it co-stars Christopher Togo ['CSI: Miami'] and a raccoon named Lizzie." He’ll also star as a surveillance expert in "Spy," an upcoming action thriller.

Besides acting, Curtis, 24, sings blues and rock and has written songs since he was 12. "Theatre’s my passion," he says, and he’d love to play Hamlet, Biff and Puck. He probably picked up his love of performing "from watching my father as a minister spread the message of love. My mother works with refugees and my sister works with cancer patients, so I’ve always wanted to make a difference in the world. I don’t want to be known as the Dell dude forever. I want to be a great artist. Our cast is incredible, and I love making people laugh. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, doing [theatre]."

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Richard Todd Adams is one Broadway caliber "Leading Man" who’s not afraid to work his rear end off — literally. In last month’s Fringe musical The Day the World Went Queer!, the six-foot-two hunk from Galveston, TX, did something cheeky: He wore a leather harness and "ass-less chaps" that bared his behind, and to top it off, the rich and robust baritone belted "Nobody Wants a Daddy [Who’s a Bottom]." But it was all for laughs in this madcap satire by Jonathan Matthew Gilbert, Lavell V. Blackwell and Joshua H. Cohen. Adams was a riot playing Grant, a strait-laced straight guy who "turned gay" when his town legalized same-sex marriage. He says, "I can’t believe I was onstage with my ass hanging out, but it was fun and I love doing comedy."

This month, Adams plays Brett Mansford, a jet-setting pilot and playboy in Plane Crazy, Suzy Conn’s new musical comedy about stewardesses during the swinging sixties, "when stews were sexy and the world was sexist." It plays Sept. 15-25 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and stars Allison Spratt, Hollie Howard and Jodie Langel. Adams says, "It focuses on Faith, who’s a virgin from Toledo; Holly, an aspiring actress; and Janet, who jumps in bed with anyone. Brett falls for Janet, and she thinks he’s a jerk, but he genuinely loves her. Jodie and I sing a great duet called ‘Dancing on Air,’ and I get a heartfelt and beautiful solo: ‘I Will Take Care of You.’"

Next, Adams, 31, will sing at "Kurt Weill: Hard Times and War," a concert sponsored by the Lotte Lenya Competition for Singers, on Oct. 20 at Lincoln Center. "The first year I entered, [opera legend] Teresa Stratas was one of the judges and gave me unbelievable feedback. So when I went to the finals, I had a swelled head and faked my way through it. I didn’t win and afterward, Stratas grabbed me and cussed me out: ‘You’re too good to do that crap. You always have to sing from the heart.’ She really opened my eyes. The next year I said, ‘I’m gonna f****** win this thing’ and I did."

Adams has toured the U.S. and Canada in 2 Pianos 4 Hands, and for two years, played Raoul in both the Los Angeles and national touring companies of The Phantom of the Opera. "I learned more in those two years than my four years at Juilliard. I’d love to play the Phantom someday." However, as a sports fan who named his Lhasa apso Espen after the ESPN network, perhaps his most favorite role has been that of head coach for the Special Olympics: "An ex-girlfriend got me involved. It was a big challenge teaching basketball to people with learning disabilities. But if I had a horrible week, they always lifted me up. Even though the scoreboard was there, they’d ask: ‘Did we win?’ If we did, they’d embrace me and it was so rewarding."

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There’s so much to see in New York: The New York Musical Theatre Festival has become an amazing must-see for musical lovers. This year it’s back with 34 new shows, 105 events and 318 performances and runs Sept. 12-Oct. 2. If you’re looking for "Leading Men," there’s David Ayers in Tom Jones, Matt Bogart in People Like Us, Bradley Dean in The Big Time, Kevin Earley in It Came From Beyond, Ivan Hernandez and Doug Kreeger in Yank!, Jeremy Kushnier in Rooms, Deven May in The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, Anthony Rapp and Benjamin Schrader in Feeling Electric and Shonn Wiley in The View From Here. Visit . . . Sabrina Gordin and the NYMF will present Guilty Pleasures! on Sept. 18 at 8 PM at Makor, 35 West 67th Street. Among the guys who’ll be rocking and knocking themselves out at this concert: Josh Kobak, Ryan Link, Greg Reuter, Jai Rodriguez and Brandon Wardell. Norm Lewis plays Valentine with all his heart in Two Gentlemen of Verona, now through Sept. 11, in Central Park. He’ll also appear in Scott Siegel's 2nd annual Broadway Unplugged concert on Sept. 19 at 8 PM at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St. (212-307-4100). Everyone will sing without amplification, and it’ll be music to your ears. Among the other "Leading Men" on the lineup: Chuck Cooper, Rob Evan, Cheyenne Jackson, Marc Kudisch and Michael McElroy. . . . Boy, this is the moment for Evan because he’ll head a tour of Jekyll & Hyde: The Concert, which kicks off Sept. 10 in Birmingham, AL. Plus, you can catch him in the marvelous Music of Frank Wildhorn revue, which plays Sept. 12 at 7 PM and Sept. 19 at 7 and 9:30 PM at Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (212-239-6200). There, he does a soaring "Sarah" from The Civil War and "If I Should Lose My Way," a dynamite new duet with Tracy Miller that Jack Murphy and Wildhorn have written for the show. Civil War buffs will be thrilled to hear that a revised version will play Gettysburg next summer.

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at

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 theater critic for The San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

Ben Curtis (left) and Richard Todd Adams
Ben Curtis (left) and Richard Todd Adams Photo by Ben Strothmann
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