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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

butterfly."

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

Company).

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

Sullivan.

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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