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by Michael Portantiere

Chasin' Jason

  • Jason Graae


    Jason Graae (pronounced "Graah") is as funny in an interview as he is on stage -- and if you've ever seen him perform, you know that's saying a lot. An original cast member of the ubiquitous Forever Plaid, he also did a stint in Forbidden Broadway, and his Main Stem credits include A Grand Night for Singing, Falsettos, Stardust, and Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Reflect Up? Now he resides in Los Angeles with his partner, but he'll soon be headed east for a reprise of his hilarious club act Graae's Anatomy at Birdland on Sunday and Monday, October 21 and 22, at 7pm. Jason is a veritable comet of comic energy, but I pinned him down long enough for us to have a no-holds-barred phone conversation.


    BROADWAYSTARS: I love it that your show is called Graae's Anatomy. It's too bad that you used a nude photo of yourself for the cover of your CD You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile some years ago. That concept would have been even more appropriate for this show, given the title.

    JASON GRAAE: I don't think anybody really needs to see a naked photo of me the way I look now. I'm glad I did that when I was in my thirties. You know, we actually used that photo in the program for Graae's Anatomy when we did it at the El Portal Theatre in L.A. We had little white arrows pointing to my funny bone and my heart. So, who knows, maybe it will make another appearance. Why the hell not!

    STARS: I know that there have been some changes in the show. Can you tell me a little bit about the program for the new version at Birdland, without giving too much away?

    JG: Well, there's the opening number, and then there's the second song. Then there's the one that follows that, which is really good. The fourth song is very touching and moving. And then there's the finale!

    STARS: But seriously...

    JG: There are songs by Jerry Herman and John Bucchino -- and I will be reprising the story of my rise and fall as Lucky the Leprechaun for Lucky Charms cereal. That's been in all of my shows for the past five years. It's sort of a safety net for me; it's cleansing and purging for me to tell it.

    STARS: The first time I ever saw you perform was in an Off-Broadway musical called Olympus on My Mind.

    JG: That's a fun show, but it has to be cast and directed very specifically. It's like something from the Carol Burnett sketch-comedy era. The weird thing about the show is that the hero, Jupiter, is a womanizer and kind of a jerk. The whole premise is that he comes down to earth to fuck this woman, and he pulls the wool over everyone's eyes in order to get what he wants. It can be hard for an audience to buy into that, but we made it work because it's all so slapsticky. And the cast was great.

    STARS: Faith Prince and Ron Raines...

    JG: ...and Lewis J. Stadlen and Peggy Hewitt. I'll never forget this: When we did the first workshop, Lewis wasn't in it. We had a guy named Roy Brocksmith. He and I were playing twins, Mercury and Socia, but then Roy quit. Harve Brosten, the producer, pulled me aside and said, "Jason, do you ever play tennis?" I said, "Yeah..." and I'm thinking, "Great, the producer wants to bring me to his club to play tennis!" Then he said, "You know how, when you play tennis with someone who's better than you, you rise to the occasion? Well, guess who we've cast as Socia? Lewis J. Stadlen! He's going to try to wipe you off that stage, and he probably can. But if you hold your ground, it's just gonna make your game better." Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck for the first month working with Lewis -- but then we had a great time.

    STARS: You recently did the Jerry Herman revue Hello, Jerry! all around the country.

    JG: Yes, it was an 18-city tour. And I'm also in the new documentary film about Jerry. I'm so happy there's proof that I worked with him! When he would come out on stage and sing and play "Mame," it was like a rock concert.

    STARS: Who else was in the cast?

    JG: It was Karen Morrow, Paige O'Hara, Don Pippin, Jerry, and myself. Karen is amazing. Her voice is like a viola; it just gets better and better.

    STARS: When I saw Graae's Anatomy the last time you did it at Birdland, the audience was in stitches. I'm guessing that the time you spent in Forbidden Broadway was of great help in honing your comedic skills.

    JG: Yeah! The interesting thing about that show is that it's over-the-top comedy, but it's usually done in small theaters, so you can't be too muggy. That was a challenge for me, but it helped to watch people who were great at it, like Michael McGrath, Christine Pedi, and Susanne Blakeslee. I have to tell you, doing a one-man show is so much easier than doing Forbidden Broadway. That was the hardest job I've ever had in my life! It was a lot of fun, but I was glad when it was over.

    STARS: You also did Forbidden Hollywood in L.A.

    JG: That was an amazing experience. It was like an industrial; everybody from the business came. We ran for close to nine months. In Los Angeles, that's huge.

    STARS: So, how 's your life out there now?

    JG: Well, my partner and I bought a house in the hills, and we just moved in. He's a landscape designer -- and yes, he will trim your bush anytime you ask. We've been together for eight years. Lately, it's been all about getting settled and getting rid of the ants that have been coming in through the kitchen door. Plus, my mother has moved in with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's quite a time, but thank god for pills and liquor.

    STARS: I'm so glad you're coming back to Birdland, I think it's one of the best nightclub spaces in the city. Do you agree?

    JG: It's great. I love the setup, because it feels theatrical. There's also a little bit of space between you and the people sitting up front. I don't like cabaret where people are literally looking up your nose; that makes me nervous.

    STARS: Yes, it must be nice to have some distance. Especially for someone like you, who's...umm...

    JG: A large perfomer? Rather over the top? It's true: Subtlety isn't my middle name. But the show is great. One of the new sections I really love is about my professional debut in West Side Story at the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City. I was cast as Chino -- and that's all I'm saying. I was a funny Chino, dammit.

    JG: If you played Chino, who played Baby John?

    JG: That's not important! I actually auditioned for Riff, I got called back for Baby John, and I was cast as Chino. I was absolutely appalled, and I was dreadful in the part.

    STARS: It seems like you have a million funny anecdotes. When you do a club act, do you do most of the writing and structuring yourself?

    JG: Yes, although Bruce Vilanch wrote my very first club act. I was so in awe of him. He kind of inspired me to try it on my own, and I love it.

    Published on Friday, October 12, 2007

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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