05/03/2006 By Mark Kennedy for ASSOCIATED PRESS
NEW YORK – How sizzling is John Lloyd Young’s theater career right now?
Let’s put it this way: Last year, while studying acting and doing odd jobs, the closest he got to a Broadway stage was as an usher, handing out Playbills for folks attending the musical “42nd Street.”
This year, he’s a star in his own Broadway show, earning rave reviews and, maybe even cooler, has been asked by the owners of the famed theater-district restaurant Sardi’s to sit for a caricature.
“I see that as a real hallmark event,” Young says, excitedly. “I thought it would take me 10 years to get a caricature at Sardi’s, not 10 weeks. That, to me, is astounding.”
What’s getting Young noticed is his turn in “Jersey Boys,” the San Diego-sprung “behind the music” musical about the doo-wop group the Four Seasons: Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi.
The show – written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, directed by La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo – explores the career arc of the group: their meeting, their money and women problems, their breakup, and finally their 1999 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Young plays Valli, the emotional core of the show whose falsetto fuels such hits as “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” It was a juicy role that Young originally lost and then recaptured – with career-making results.
The New York Times called him “a genuine star-in-the-making” who gives the role “a spontaneity that never fades.” Anne Marie Welsh, in the San Diego Union-Tribune, said “Young takes us on an emotional journey with a subtlety and restraint that’s rare in musical theater.” And the Associated Press also was impressed: “Young does more than impersonate Valli. He lives, breathes and sings the man.”
All this is music to the ears of Young, a 1998 Brown University graduate whose biggest credit so far was a part in Michael Healey’s “The Drawer Boy” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J.
“There are people who wouldn’t answer my phone calls a year ago who are suddenly not just saying, ‘Do you want to audition for this project?’ They’re saying, ‘What kind of projects do you want to do?’ ” he says. “That’s pretty heady.”
Young almost blew his shot, having narrowly missed snagging the Valli part when it was first being performed at the La Jolla Playhouse.
“I wasn’t ready,” concedes Young, swigging Gatorade during an interview in his dressing room. “When the script came to me, the first thing I thought, to be perfectly honest, was, ‘I’m not right for this kind of project.’ I expected I would make my debut on Broadway in a play. I never expected I’d make it in a musical. Most Broadway musicals didn’t seem to be the right fit for me.”
Even so, Young went ahead and auditioned for the smaller part of DeVito. Producers liked him, but then asked him to return in two days and try for Valli.
It made sense: Both men are natural baritones with mean falsettos. Both come from Roman Catholic and Italian descent – Valli grew up in Newark, N.J., while Young spent summers in the New York borough of Queens. And both also have similar statures, Valli being 5 feet and 5 inches, and Young standing just two inches taller.
But Young lost the role. “Two days isn’t enough to digest that opportunity,” he says. “My own psychology gets in my way sometimes as an actor.
“I tricked myself out of some very important realizations: One, I’m a little guy with an Italian background. I have this incredibly high falsetto that, although untrained, was there. And I’m an actor. So I can act it, sing it and look it.”
When the show made its move to Broadway, the actor who had beaten Young for the Valli part dropped out. That opened the door for Young. Practiced and ready, he nailed a string of auditions.
“I think the right part came along for him and he was ready for it,” says director McAnuff. “He’d done all the prep-work and he was ready to step up to the plate.”
First, Young had to dust off his falsetto. He’d rarely employed it other than in the shower or when doing a mean impression of Tina Turner with friends at karaoke.
“It was a party trick. I didn’t know I’d have any use for it as a professional actor,” he says. “Although what I’ve learned more and more in my nascent career is that your party tricks end up becoming your ticket to your next role.”
His research for the role took him to the Museum of Television and Radio for old footage of the Four Seasons, and on a secret visit to Las Vegas where he took in a Valli show, scribbling notes on a napkin.
That clever gambit didn’t seem so clever a little later: Once Young got the part, Valli returned the favor.
The legendary singer, now 68, showed up unannounced at a rehearsal of “Jersey Boys” and sat a few feet from Young as the younger man belted out many of the Four Seasons’ hits.
The experience, Young says, was “harrowing.”
“I was nervous because I wanted him to think I was playing him with dignity and fairness,” Young says. “And he was probably nervous, I’m guessing, because he wanted me to play him with dignity and fairness. I think in the end we’re both happy with the result.”
In comparison, learning the Four Season music was a cinch. “I was astounded by the breath of their music. When I started rehearsal, I knew all the songs,” he says.
Still, the role has demanded a lot out of Young, who had to step up his dancing skills and now avoids staying out late to protect his voice. Young couldn’t even attend a recent celebratory dinner for the cast hosted by McAnuff.
“There’s no question that this is a guy who’s worked very, very hard to get where he is and deserves everything that’s happening to him,” says McAnuff. “He can do it all and it’s not going to go to his head.”
Young is beginning to think about where his career will go now that its got some heat. Though he’s contracted to do “Jersey Boys” for a year, he’s already worried.
“There’s a little anxiety that if I don’t put things in the pipeline now I could be knocking on doors again,” he says. “But I think that’s just Catholicism and not reality.”