BWW Interview: A Reputation to Protect: Neil Starkenberg Stars as MSMT's Danny Zuko

BWW Interview:  A Reputation to Protect: Neil Starkenberg Stars as MSMT's Danny Zuko

"I imagine that Danny is the youngest in a family of boys, and he feels he has to live up to the name Zuko at Rydell High. In the movie he says 'I've got a reputation to protect,' and I think that goes a long way to explaining his behavior."

Neil Starkenberg is commenting on his role debut in Maine State Music Theatre's upcoming production of Grease, which begins a run at the Pickard Theater on July 19. For the twenty-eight year-old actor, the iconic part of the fifties greaser, Danny Zuko, is a dream come true, and Starkenberg has spent a great deal of time preparing for the part.

Some of that preparation has been subconscious, he explains, as he talks about the conundrum of assuming a role that has been seared into the collective American consciousness by a long list of film and theatre greats, perhaps none more than John Travolta. "I actually don't like to watch other people doing a role, but in the case of Grease, that was hard to avoid. I noticed this the other day in rehearsal when I delivered a line that I thought was so clever and then realized the way I did it was just like the movie. Somewhere, subconsciously in my childhood acquaintance with the film, this had been imprinted on my psyche. I decided I would have to pay tribute to that memory."

Nonetheless, Starkenberg says working with director/choreographer Mark Martino has helped him shape his own fresh conception of Danny. "I see him as a good kid who is misunderstood," Starkenberg says of Zuko. He essentially has good morals and a softer side, though he has to project the 'bad boy' persona when he is with the guys. The stage version lets you see that in small snippets. For example, he tries to ease off Patty when he breaks up with her and he pulls Sandy aside to explain to her that he is really glad to see her, but that he has to maintain his image with the guys. I think Sandy brings out that softer side in him, and it's nice to see. I am a goober, so I like to find the humor in it."

And what does Danny see in Sandy, ostensibly so much his opposite, when they meet? Starkenberg replies without hesitation: "I think he sees his truer self. She is the one person who brings out his best attributes. She represents who he wants to be after high school. He doesn't always want to be a rebel, and he sees a future with Sandy. Together they strike a happy medium. He is trying to be good for her, and she's trying to be bad for him, and end by meeting in the middle. They find a give and take, and you see that visually in that moment at the end of the show."

For Starkenberg, who is returning to MSMT for his second season after making his Brunswick debut last year first as Pepper in the company's sell-out blockbuster Mamma Mia! and then going on to succeed Cory Jeacoma in the leading role of Sky, this opportunity to appear with the company again "feels so amazingly good! I am so excited to get this chance to play a role I've never played before, and it is really cool to work with Chelsea [Williams as Sandy] again. We did Mamma Mia! on tour and on Broadway together; she was Sophie and I was Pepper and understudied Sky, but I never got to go on opposite her until last summer here at MSMT. So many threads have come together for me being cast in this show, that I feel as if I were meant to do it. And then MSMT is such an amazing theatre and working here has such a warm family feeling."

In addition to Chelsea Williams, Grease represents a reunion for Starkenberg with director/choreographer Mark Martino, who staged last year's Mamma Mia! Starkenberg praises Martino's unique vision for the show. "This production is going to be more nostalgic than some. Mark has a great way of keeping the mood up and making it all about fun and relationships and the innocence you experienced at the time. He keeps the jokes coming and the atmosphere exuberant, so that when serious moments do occur, like Rizzo's "There Are Worse Tings I Could Do," everything suddenly stops. Also, like the recent Grease Live, MSMT's production uses a large ensemble of thirty-four, and there is so much energy and so much stimulation on stage that when there are the quieter character moments, you really do pause, take a breath, and pay attention."

Starkenberg continues, saying that the colorful costumes, the stunning Martino choreography, and the spot-on casting also make this production special. "Mark has such a long history with this show. He played Danny Zuko himself several times and has directed it before. His choreography is great fun and very character drivenhas . For me that is great because if it helps me connect with every other person in the cast. For example, "Greased Lightning" is going to be very athletic with these guys having a great time punching and dancing around the car. Or when you see thirty-four people doing the hand jive with their dresses swirling and flaring up, it's electric!"

In addition to the visual aspects and production numbers, Starkenberg notes that MSMT's version will use the expanded stage score that incorporates beloved songs from the film version such as "Sandy," "You're the One I Want," and "Hopelessly Devoted to You" together with all the Broadway stage songs. Then, too, Starkenberg is in awe of his fellow cast members. "Charis [Leos] is so amazing as Miss Lynch, and all the other roles - Kenickie, Rizzo, the Teen Angel, Vince Fontaine - are so perfectly cast. Curt [Dale Clark] and MSMT are amazing at finding the very best people!"

Summing up his enthusiastic response to the production, Starkenberg adds, "Mark [Martino] has done such a great job of re-creating the experience of high school with its cliques and relationships. No matter the era, we all have that moment when we want to be 'cool' and we take away memories and friendships that stay with us forever."

For Neil Starkenberg, his high school and college experiences took place in California. He says he started as " a band geek playing the saxophone at an early age - 'I wanted to be the next Kenny G' - before becoming involved in theatre in public school from the age of twelve onward. "I had one line in The Music Man," he recalls smiling. "It was 'Good morning, Mayor Shin' and a little solo in 'The Wells Fargo Wagon,' and from that moment I was hooked. When I got to play Friedrich in The Sound of Music, I knew I wanted to make musical theatre become my career."

Starkenberg took his degree from California State University at Fullerton and remained for a while in California performing at Disneyworld. "I was still non-union, so I wanted to build a resume before heading to New York. And then I auditioned for the tour of ifornia and landed the role of Pepper and the understudy for Sky, and that was my eventual ticket to NYC, where I played the role on Broadway and actually got to go on as Sky a number of times. I closed the show as Pepper, which was mind-blowing to think that I was actually part of that experience."

Since then Starkenberg has undertaken a variety of roles including playing Ren in Footloose, Gideon in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and gracing the ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar. Most recently, he just finished a short run of a new work at the Adirondack Playhouse, Nicola Tesla Drops the Beat. The actor says he loves working on new pieces and that this one fascinated him because he is a history buff.

With his career on the rise, Starkenberg says that while he does have goals and dreams he nurtures - like "originating a role on Broadway and being on the original cast album"- "I just want to stay happy working at what I love and be able to support myself. I am very lucky to have met so many wonderful people on my various contracts and made lasting friendships, and I hope to continue doing this."

This philosophy of savoring the moment and appreciating the journey is reflected in Starkenberg's concluding thoughts about MSMT's Grease. Asked what he hopes the audience will take away, he responds quickly: "Joy! I want them to take away the same joy that we are having telling this story I want them to have this bebop uplift, to remember what it was like to be a teenager, and to be transported to a simpler time."

And for himself, what will Neil Starkenberg take from playing Danny Zuko in Grease? He pauses and ponders this answer before he says quietly: "To stand up for what is right. To be the man you've always wanted to be and if you find someone who brings that out in you - a person who will never change - then follow that person because he or she is worth your time."

Photos courtesy MSMT.

MSMT's Grease runs from July 19- 23 at the Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 207-725-8769


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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold