For Justin Guarini, A Place to RENT

Justin Guarini — of both American Idol AND American Idiot — decrees Summer 2011, with a starring turn in RENT at Surflight Theatre.

The last time that Justin Guarini invaded a popular beach resort kind of town, the results went something like this.

Here in 2011, while countless American Idol winners, runners-up, finalists and forgottens scramble for the ice floes in the ongoing music biz meltdown, the famously moptopped silver medalist from Season One has moved forward by moving back — to the legit stage, where he cut his teeth as a young Broadway veteran (taking a chance on the unproven Idol by turning down a part in The Lion King).

Following a high-profile costar role in the Bart Sher musicalization Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (and the runner-up male lead in the closing weeks of the Green Day jukeboxer American Idiot), Guarini landed in the relative peace and quiet of off-season Long Beach Island — not to take solitary walks on the chilly beach or write that memoir, but to star in a new professional production of Jonathan Larson‘s rockopera Rent.

Based unabashedly upon La Bohème and representing the life’s work of its struggling, striving composer(who died just prior to the show’s taking Off Broadway and then Broadway by storm in 1996), the edgy, passionate portrait of the young, restless and deathly sick in the 1980s East Village milieu of AIDS, yuppies and Tompkins Square Park has spawned careers (including that of Idina Menzel), inspired a massive popcultural phenomenon and excited young perfomers as few shows have ever done before.

It’s a somewhat unusual curtain-raiser for the 62nd season of musical shows at Beach Haven’s Surflight Theatre — the LBI landmark that, as has been detailed in the local media, very nearly collapsed under a sue-nami of debt last year. With a new executive producer (Roy Miller) skippering at the helm — and an upcoming season that brings everyone from Judd Hirsch and Cindy Williams to Gilbert Gottfried and Dawn Wells to town — the new Surflight team is banking on Guarini’s stage savvy and celeb wattage to get things back on track.

The 32 year old Idol (a newly minted dad, as of just a few weeks back) is cast here as the frustrated, tragedy-scarred, HIV-positive musician Roger, with Drew Gasparini as Mark (a role originally announced for TV’s Paul Iacono),  Joshua Cruz as Angel, Katrina Dideriksen as Mimi, Dean-Carlo Grant as Collins, Chelsea Lovett as Maureen, and Carla Stewart as Joanne. Jen Bender (resident director on Lion King and many others) directs the production and choreographs.

We spoke to Justin Guarini on a particularly grim, but productive, pre-Memorial Day day on LBI. Flip the paperless page for more…

I’d officially welcome you to the Upper Wet Side, but it’s looking especially grim out there as we speak…you’ve probably reckoned that Long Beach Island is all about the summer, and, well, it ain’t summer yet.

It’s a little quiet around here right now. But it’s perfect for getting work done…we’ve only had three weeks of rehearsal, and it’s going great; our version of the picture is coming together beautifully.

Are you staying locally while you’re doing the show? And do you have your wife and your newborn baby with you there? Your wife who, I just read a few minutes ago, was pregnant for ten months and a week?

No, I’ve been going up to be with the family off and on throughout rehearsals. It’s been challenging, you know, having a new baby in the house, but it’s worth every bit of lost sleep.

I have to say that our son Will has impeccable timing. He was due to be born while I was still doing American Idiot; I was sweating bullets, waiting for the stage manager to come up to me and tell me that my wife was going into labor. He was due the 21st, the show closed the 24th, that Monday I came back home, and Tuesday morning she started having contractions.

Growing up as you did in Pennsylvania, you must have done some hanging out on the Jersey Shore…I noticed a long time ago that people from Pennsylvania generally have a kinder, gentler perspective on this area than people from up New York way.

Oh yeah, are you kidding me? My mom, my grandmother both grew up in Atlantic City — and of course Wildwood was the place to go for summer vacation. I loved being able to spend time on the Shore.

This is going just a wee bit off topic, but I’ve been asked by a friend to mention how sensational you were in WOMEN ON THE VERGE, and to get your impression of how it was to work with that dream-team cast…

It was daunting at first. It’s like I was the rookie stepping into the book of Who’s Who On Broadway — Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti, and Bart Sher, the director. I learned so, so very much on that show…it really helped bring my game to the next level.

I came away from the experience really feeling like I was spoiled — I mean, having Patti LuPone as my mother! American Idiot was awesome in its own right as well — the future generation of Broadway stars is in that show.

Well, RENT, to put it mildly, has its fans…but I’ve noticed, maybe more so than with any other show, that actors are real fanatics about it too. When rights first became available, everybody was salivating at the prospect of getting involved with a production. What do you think it is about RENT that makes it such a must for performers?

I think because it is, and always has been, a unique show to Broadway. This is really our generation’s Jesus Christ Superstar — it’s just chock full of amazing, beautiful music…even the lines of dialogue that you do get to speak are specifically metered out and rhythmic. So it’s a bit of a challenge, and it can be a real win-win for an actor. I’ve been wanting to do it since I first heard the cast recording…by the time I saw the Broadway video recording I knew I had to be part of this show.

It also seems to herald something of a new era over at Surflight, where they’ve got a new team in place this season…it’s definitely an edgier sort of offering for them, whereas a couple of years ago you’d have stuff like STATE FAIR starring John Davidson.

This is a show with a heavier, more poignant subject matter than most — but beautiful and striking at the same time. Anybody who’s in their early 40s and beyond, who lived through the time of the outbreak, the AIDS epidemic, can appreciate the story. For people who weren’t around back then, it’s a chance to see what was life was like, during a time that was akin to the days of the Plague.

As popular as this show is, do you think there’s still a sense that a company really needs to pull out all the stops, and work overtime to sell it to a vacation-mode sort of audience?

I hope that people who aren’t familiar with this truly unique show approach it with an open mind. It’s exciting to perform in it, and it’s pretty cool to be part of a brand new direction here on Long Beach Island.

Alright, we just have time for a quick lightning round. Fill in the blank: a lot of people might be surprised to learn that Justin Guarini like to listen to…?

Let’s see…Björk!

If you could have been a part of any opening night cast, in any show in history…?

That’s a tough one to answer, but…I’d say Chicago. It’s a really good show, and I think I’d really enjoy being able to do that one.

Favorite local Philly area kiddie TV show, from when you were growing up? Looking for something like Uncle Al‘s Showcase.

Well, it’s not really a local show, actually it was out of Minnesota, but if we’re talking about what I liked to watch when I was younger, I’d say Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Fave Philly sports franchise?

Eagles, all the way!

And finally, this one may get us all into a lot of trouble, but…Pat’s or Geno’s?

Oh, definitely Geno’s! My buddy!

Rent goes up for two performances (at 2pm and 8pm) on Saturday, May 28; Sunday, May 29 and Tuesday, May 31 — then continues from June 1 through June 19. Take it here for tickets ($31 – $49) and more details on what’s shaping up to be an interesting season at Surflight.

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