Denman gives them the song and dance--The actor uses all his talents in 'Crazy for You'
By Terry Byrne, Globe Correspondent | April 22, 2007
BEVERLY -- On a recent afternoon, a North Shore Music Theatre rehearsal room is alive with syncopated feet and the infectious music of George Gershwin. As director/choreographer Richard Stafford runs through a dance combination he's just taught his "Crazy for You" ensemble, the air is thick with concentration and physical effort. The company is working through a big production number for "Slap That Bass" in the musical, which starts previews Tuesday.
At the center of the action, looking utterly relaxed in the midst of all the corrections and adjustments, is Jeffry Denman, lifting and spinning his costar Amanda Watkins with the ease of a seasoned hand.
In "Crazy for You," Denman plays Bobby Childs, a wealthy but frustrated accountant sent to a small mining town to foreclose on a theater -- but who, in a classic musical-theater twist, passes himself off as a director putting on a show to save the theater instead.
"Bobby Childs is a dork and a romantic," Denman says during a break, still full of energy despite singing and dancing for four hours straight. "He believes people will help each other out and work together to accomplish something, in this case, to save a theater. I admire that honesty and sincerity."
Much of the sincerity of "Crazy for You" comes from the collection of songs that the creative team -- the late director Mike Ockrent, the choreographer Susan Stroman, and the book writer Ken Ludwig -- selected from several Gershwin musicals for what debuted on Broadway in 1992 as "a new Gershwin musical comedy." They picked such Gershwin chestnuts as "I Got Rhythm," "Embraceable You," and "Someone to Watch Over Me"; fashioned a boy-meets-girl story around them; and then reveled in the razzle-dazzle that emerged.
"I've been waiting my entire career to play this role," Denman says. "My girlfriend told me I'm not happy unless I'm doing everything in the show, and this show gives me the opportunity to do it all."
Denman has the kind of talent that allows him to do it all. Although he's now known as a song-and-dance man, he began in the chorus and worked his way up to principal, a journey he chronicled in the 2002 book "A Year with 'The Producers': One Actor's Exhausting (But Worth It) Journey from 'Cats' to Mel Brooks' Mega-Hit." The book began as a diary during his last days in the final Broadway company of "Cats" and then followed his audition and rehearsals for "The Producers," the musical adaptation of Brooks's film, in which Denman understudied Matthew Broderick. It offers a unique perspective on the process of creating and polishing a Broadway show.
"I have had people complain that the book doesn't dish enough," Denman says, "but that's not what happened, and that's a tribute to Stro [Stroman, the show's director] who brought people together who know how to work. The essence of comedy is very clean and sharp, and that's what she focused on."
At first, Denman says he thought it would be a good idea to write down what it was like to meet and work with Brooks, Nathan Lane, Broderick, and Stroman, "but then the buzz for the show started getting crazy, even at the first rehearsal, and I knew this was going to be a big deal. The book became about this amazing creative process, how these moments in the show happened, how I was able to get several small comic bits in different scenes, and how, ultimately, I was chosen to understudy Matthew."
Broderick played Leo Bloom, an accountant who becomes the business partner to Lane's shady producer Max Bialystock . When Broderick went on vacation and then became sick for a few weeks after that, Denman was able to go on in a starring role about 30 times.
"It's tricky, though," he says. "I wasn't creating the role, I was doing the best I could to re-create Matthew's rhythm so that I didn't throw off any other member of the cast. I can't tell you how generous and kind Nathan Lane was to me, because the timing of that show was so fast and so tight, it would have been easy to throw things off track."
After 18 months with "The Producers," Denman left for a leading role in "I Love a Piano," which never made it to Broadway.
"But I decided that I couldn't return to Broadway until I came back in a principal role," he says.
That calculation turned out to be a difficult one, as Denman had a nearly two-year dry spell. But then choreographer Randy Skinner recommended him for the San Francisco-based production of "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" in 2004. Denman got the lead, and his performance made him more in demand, earning him a leading role in the Encores! production of "Of Thee I Sing" in New York.
"You become a commodity," Denman says with a smile. And in his career, everything's finally starting to add up.
"Crazy for You" -- another role as an accountant -- is the perfect show for him right now, he says.
"It's also a great dance show, and I have a lot of respect for Richard Stafford, who's creating all new choreography," Denman says.
"I'm thrilled to be known as a song-and-dance man now, and I appreciate the challenging roles that come my way."
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.