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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 8,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A ‘Duke of Hazard’ Takes a Tour in Vietnam
One of the more popular and well-received shows this summer at the New
York Fringe Festival was "Big Trouble in Little Hazard," a collegiate
spoof of the long-running comedy adventure television series "The
Dukes of Hazard" (1977 to 1984). Tom Wopat, who is starring in "Last
of the Boys," a new play by Steven Dietz at the McCarter Theater, is
probably best known for playing Luke Duke in that corny TV series for
seven years, during which he also directed five episodes. In our phone
chat during rehearsals, he admits that he didn’t go to see the Fringe
spoof. One can surmise that the production may represent a part of
Wopat’s theatrical life that he has put behind him.
Indeed, the role he is playing in "Last of the Boys" represents a
significant dramatic step for the performer who is mostly known on
Broadway as a musical theater performer. The last of the boys are two
Vietnam vets, Ben and Jeeter, who shared a tour of duty and have
continued a friendship over the years. Wopat plays Jeeter, whom he
characterizes, in contrast to Ben, as "more of a gadfly and social
In the play, which is about the continuing casualties of a war that
will not end, Jeeter visits Ben, who lives in a trailer in the middle
of nowhere. He explains that "Jeeter visits Ben every summer to rumple
his feathers." One wonders if Wopat, more famously known as a fine
musician and singer, rumpled any feathers when, appearing recently as
Julian Marsh in "42nd Street" on Broadway, he grabbed his trombone
after the curtain calls and raced down to the pit to play the last few
bars of the exit music.
Although Wopat’s musical appearances have outnumbered his dramatic
roles, he recently showed his dramatic heft in the post 9/11 dramatic
reading of "The Guys" for six weeks with Amy Irving at the Flea
Theater. "That was a really tough piece with a big emotional impact.
So that’s why I am excited about doing this play by Dietz, whom I
think is quite brilliant. It’s a play that needs to be done,
especially in the situation we are in today," says Wopat, who will be
the first person to admit that he has been cast against type from
roles he usually plays.
"Unlike me," he says, "Jeeter is an associate professor at a liberal
arts college on the West Coast who teaches a course on the 1960s, a
garrulous guy who likes to hear himself talk. It wasn’t hard for me,
however, to understand Jeeter. I grew up in that era and knew guys who
went to Vietnam. What I notice is that they don’t talk about it much."
Wopat believes that playing the role of Jeeter gives him his first
opportunity to create a role from scratch. "Except for the role I
played this summer in the new Michael John LaChiusa musical ‘R Shomon’
at the Williamstown Theater Festival, I guess I’ve always been a
replacement before," says Wopat, who has been making a concerted
effort to stretch out beyond musical theater. "I’ve made it clear to
my agents that I want more interesting stuff," he says. "My agents
have been aggressively pursuing more interesting pieces like the
LaChiusa musical and the Dietz play."
Although Wopat’s last Broadway appearance was as Julian Marsh in "42nd
Street," it was playing the role of Frank Butler in the 1999 revival
of "Annie Get Your Gun" (opposite Bernadette Peters) that provided him
for the first time with the chance to open a show on Broadway as its
leading man. The New York Times made a point of complimenting Wopat
for his "effortless low-key presence" in "Annie Get Your Gun," a
performance that earned him a Tony nomination. "Working with
Bernadette for almost two years was the most rewarding experience I’ve
ever had," he says. "I keep trying to convince her to do ‘Sweeney
Todd’ with me," he says with cautious optimism.
You could say that Wopat, up until that time, was generally considered
an "A" list replacement in such Broadway shows as "I Love My Wife"
(1977), "City of Angels" (1989), and "Guys and Dolls" (1992). When I
remind Wopat that he seemed to be most often replacing James Naughton
in such shows as "I Love My Wife," "City of Angels," and most recently
in "Chicago," he answers, with a hearty laugh, "I’m the Naughton
clone, baby-Naughton lite."
Wopat had another success on TV in 1995 when he appeared as the
rugged, handsome stuntman ex-husband number one on "Cybill," the hit
CBS sitcom starring Cybill Shepherd. The versatile Wopat was also the
impressive baritone singing voice that has been backed up on occasion
by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The voice, along with his virile personality, has been a major factor
in establishing him as an exceptional and appealing talent.
This is undoubtedly the reason why modernist theater composer Michael
John LaChiusa cast him in his musical "R Shomon," a musical version of
the classic Japanese film classic "Rashomon." Wopat’s debut album for
Angel Records, "The Still of the Night," was also a way for Wopat to
bring a new edge to the standards in the great American songbook, and,
as Variety reported of his cabaret act, "Wopat has an appealingly
robust and easy going style."
Born on September 9, 1951, and raised on a small dairy farm in Lodi,
Wisconsin, the musically gifted Wopat says he got the bug to sing and
dance at the age of 12, when he started appearing in the high school
musicals. At the University of Wisconsin, he studied music and voice
and performed in campus musicals – "West Side Story," "Jesus Christ
Superstar," and "South Pacific" – but didn’t stick around to graduate,
instead taking off to sing and play trombone in a rock band. Two
seasons of summer stock at the Barn Theater in Michigan followed
before he headed for New York in 1977, where he was cast within weeks
in an off-Broadway musical, "A Bistro Car in the CNR." Other
off-Broadway productions included "Olympus on My Mind," and, more
recently, "The Guys."
As Wopat is making his McCarter debut as a dramatic actor, he is quick
to alert me about his return to McCarter this December with "my little
jazz trio." Next month Wopat will be recording songs from the Harold
Arlen canon. "I’ll be going on a concert tour of the Arlen songs with
my ‘Guys and Dolls’ co-star, Faith Prince, in January," says Wopat,
not forgetting to mention their concert at Carnegie Hall on
Valentine’s Day. And speaking of a full schedule, Wopat will be the
next Billy Flynn in the "Chicago" tour, beginning at Seattle’s
Paramount Theater in January.
While we don’t expect Wopat to grab his trombone after the curtain
calls of "Last of the Boys," it might not be a bad move for Duke Luke
to bring out his guitar – that way we could end the evening with a big
gig in little Princeton.
Last of the Boys, McCarter Theater, through Sunday, October 17.
Previews began on Tuesday, September 7; opening night, Friday,
September 17. Evening performances at 7:30 p.m., except 8 p.m. on
Saturday and Sunday; matinees on Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 2
p.m. Special performances include Dialogue on Drama, featuring Emily
Mann and Chris Hedges on Sunday, September 19, at 2 p.m; Pride Night
on Thursday, September 23, at 6 p.m.; and After Hours Theater Party on
Friday, September 24, at 10 p.m. Tickets available online at
www.mccarter.org and by phone at 609-258-2787.
Also appearing in "Last of the Boys:"
Joseph Siravo, playing Ben. He has appeared in roles ranging from Mark
Antony in Antony & Cleopatra to Sweeney in Sweeney Todd to Johnny
Soprano on HBO’s The Sopranos. Broadway credits include Conversations
with My Father and The Boys from Syracuse. Off Broadway: Mad Forest
and Up Against the Wind (New York Theatre Workshop), Gemini and Dark
Rapture (Second Stage), My Night with Reg (The New Group), The Root
(The Atlantic), Dream of a Common Language (The Women’s Project),
Lusting after Pipino’s Wife (Primary Stages), and Smashing (The Play
Regional: Hamlet (Long Wharf), Three Sisters (The Shakespeare Theatre
of New Jersey), The Sweet Life (Yale Repertory), Steel (American
Repertory Theatre), and Savages (Seattle Repertory).
Film: Maid in Manhattan, Carlito’s Way, Thirteen Conversations about
One Thing, Walking & Talking, Sharktale, and The Wild.
TV: Third Watch, Law and Order, and the Cosby Show.
Jenny Bacon, playing Salyer, has been seen in Off-Broadway’s Omnium
Gatherum (Variety Arts), The Orphan of Zhao (Lincoln Center), More
Stately Mansions (New York Theatre Workshop, Edinburgh Herald Angel
Award), A Streetcar Named Desire, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told
(NYTW), Race (Classic Stage Company), Arabian Nights (Manhattan
Theater Club), Carson McCullers: Historically Inaccurate
(Playwrights/Women’s Project), and Get What You Need (Atlantic Theater
Workshop). TV: Fling, Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Law & Order: CI.
Film: In God’s Hands.
Steven Boyer, playing Young Soldier, appeared in McCarter education
department’s production of Jack Gelber’s Dylan’s Line. He has appeared
on Broadway in the revival of I’m Not Rappaport directed by Daniel
Television appearances include Law & Order and Ed. Boyer, a graduate
of the Juilliard School, can also be seen performing stand up comedy
in New York.
Deborah Hedwall, playing Lorraine, formerly appeared at McCarter in
Emily Mann’s Greensboro (A Requiem) and A Doll’s House, also directed
by Mann. She has worked on and off-Broadway over the past 20 years and
extensively at regional theaters.
Regional work has taken her to The Actors Theatre of Louisville, Arena
Stage, Long Wharf Theater, Yale Repertory, The Eugene O’Neil Theater
Conference, and the Sundance Playwrights Festival. Film: Shadrack,
Better Living, Underheat, Flashbeck, Hard Rain, and the upcoming Dirt.
Television: the disturbed mother on the critically acclaimed series
"I’ll Fly Away." Hedwall teaches acting in the MFA Theater Arts
Department at Rutgers University under the direction of Israel Hicks.
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