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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Joanne Javien of 'Two Gentlemen of Verona'

New York City, summer 2005. Temperatures average five degrees above normal. The thermometer hits record highs, and stays above 90 for several days in a row during three consecutive weeks. The heat index—what the temperature actually feels like, given the humidity—tops 100. And Joanne Javien makes her Shakespeare in the Park debut, as part of the ensemble in the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona.

"When we got to tech and were rehearsing at the theater from noon to midnight in horrible heat—just not ready for it," Javien says about her first days in the Delacorte. "The sun is, like, sucking all the energy away from you. It was brutal. The humidity too, especially at night."

There were other outdoor conditions to deal with as well. "You know how the ensemble is sitting there watching Proteus and Valentine in the first scene?" Javien assumes her on-stage pose to illustrate what happened during one performance. "A small bug flew and landed on my lips. I couldn't do anything [to remove it]. I was trying to wisp it away and it wouldn't go. When I walked offstage and looked in a mirror, it had died on my lips! It was disgusting!"

Well, at least these discomforts are offset by some positive circumstances. "The whole thing about Shakespeare in the Park—about being in such a cultural city, in the park with all the beautiful nature around, and doing a musical," Javien rhapsodizes. Not to mention… "Working with Norm Lewis, a big Broadway star, and hearing his voice every night—that's amazing, and an honor."

Javien hadn't realized how prestigious the Two Gentlemen production is when she was auditioning—or even when she had been cast. "I didn't know, just didn't know, how big The Public Theater was till I got into it. All my friends were like, 'Joanne, I would do anything to work for the Public!'" Three years ago, she went into her first Equity production with the same naivete: While still a college student—majoring in voice performance at the Manhattan School of Music—she successfully auditioned for the ensemble of Miss Saigon at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, unaware of the regional theater's outstanding reputation.

"I didn't know anything," Javien admits. "I was so stuck in my school, in an opera world. I didn't realize what a great opportunity it was till I got there—which happens to me a lot. I'm the type of girl that once I know what I'm in for, then it means something. But I don't want to get my heart set on anything until I actually have got the work."

She's done Miss Saigon two more times since then—at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera right after graduating in June 2003, and at the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, Ohio, in spring 2004. During the Carousel run, she understudied Kim and got to go on in the role she'd been coveting since childhood. Javien, who grew up in Cerritos, Calif., and attended the Orange County High School of the Arts, first saw Miss Saigon when the tour came through L.A. while she was in junior high. (It starred Kevin Gray as the Engineer, who years later headlined the production she was in at Paper Mill.) When she was even younger, she had sung as one of the princesses on the 1992 studio recording of The King and I featuring Julie Andrews, Ben Kingsley, Lea Salonga and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. She continued to perform at the Hollywood Bowl in the chorus of concert stagings of such productions as Carousel, Show Boat and Carmen.

As an adult (and Equity member), Javien has been seen regionally in Nine at the North Shore Music Theatre outside Boston and The Secret Garden at Theatre-by-the-Sea in Rhode Island. Her last New York show prior to this summer was H.M.S. Pinafore at City Center in January 2004. She's reminded of it every evening while performing Two Gentlemen: "The kidnap scene is very Gilbert and Sullivan."

Immediately before getting into Two Gents, she spent five months in the national tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie. It was a stretch for her—and not just the kind of stretch she learned to do before each performance. "It was a very big challenge for me because it was dance-heavy," says Javien, who still considers herself foremost a singer even though she abandoned opera for musical theater before finishing college and has been taking dance classes since she was a child. "It was everything I wasn't used to: warming up the body before the show, not singing as much, putting all that energy physically as opposed to vocally. I was constantly changing clothes and getting back on stage. Doing matinees was hard. I was so tired, and actually feeling my body aching. It got easier, but it was still fresh and new for me till my last show."

Two Gents has provided some new experiences too. Javien says her favorite number in the show is "What Does a Lover Pack?" because "I never really saw myself as a pop singer or an R&B/funk singer. I had my training in opera and I did a lot of traditional musical theater, so this is a stretch for me. And it's nice because I know I can sing it." She'd also never sung a refrain quite like the one in "Thurio's Samba." "When we first learned it, we were all cracking up, as if we were back in junior high," says Javien, who—like many of her castmates—wasn't familiar with the score before rehearsals began, and didn't recognize the four-letter lyrics when handed the sheet music. "It was written out phonetically—it didn't look like the actual words, so we were like, 'Really, that's how you say it?'"

Because she's only 24, Javien does a lot of learning on the job. But her most profound lesson has occurred offstage: In July, three days before her birthday, she lost her 31-year-old cousin Roselyn to pancreatic cancer. "I grew up with her, we were the only girls on my dad's side. She was like a big-sister figure, and now she's an inspiration for me," Javien says. "She had me looking at life at a different perspective: Not to really stress out about things, and take things day by day and actually appreciate your life and the days that you have ahead of you, as opposed to someone who didn't and who for four months struggled through so much pain and suffering. She wasn't able to do a lot of things in her life, so I should take advantage and have that inspire me to do the things I want to do in my life."

During Roselyn's illness, Javien had to keep on tapping in the happy, peppy Millie—which taught her something else about the profession she's chosen. "Doing the show, it focused me on other things and I was able to forget for a while. That's the great thing about doing something you love—it takes away the sad part." At the funeral, many relatives told her how proud Roselyn had been of her (and how much they looked alike).

Javien is grateful for the support she's received from everyone in her family. "My parents, especially, fully support whatever I want to do—which can be rare, I think, in an Asian family. Doing 'Asian' shows, I've met a lot of people whose parents don't support them like that. They want them to be that dentist or doctor. I'm very fortunate." Though her mother and father, both Filipino immigrants, are a nurse and airplane machinist, they had an influence on her becoming a performer. "When I started to speak, my mom taught me a Filipino love song, and I started singing from that point on," Javien says, adding: "Music is a very big aspect in the Filipino lifestyle. They are very much into their music, and they love to express themselves that way. And they enjoy it, whether or not they're good at it."

At this point, Javien isn't concerned about ethnicity limiting the roles she gets. On the contrary, "I have felt it's to my advantage," she says. "Just because I have been working consistently, I've felt like I can be that 'token Asian girl' in ensembles. When it comes to leading roles, it's harder because there's a lot of things that I could do but it would take a director who wants to do the blind, nontraditional casting. I haven't yet reached that point in my career."

Javien spoke Tagalog at home growing up and has become ever more multilingual since. She learned to sing in several languages for opera (most difficult: French; favorite: "Oh, Italian, of course. The vowel sounds are so pure, and it's so beautiful-sounding") and has sung in Spanish as a cantor at Holy Name of Jesus Church on the Upper West Side. And she had to speak and sing in Chinese when understudying the role of Bun Foo in Millie.

Javien hasn't ruled out returning to opera someday, though right now she's content with her decision to focus on musical theater. "It's more fun for me. I feel I'm able to express myself a lot easier 'cause it is in English. I love to dance, and in opera it's all about the singing. I wanted to move [on stage], I didn't want to stay in one spot." Two Gentlemen may not be staying in one spot either. The Central Park run is scheduled to conclude Sept. 11, but fans are hankering for a Broadway transfer.

Photos, from top: Joanne frolics in the Two Gentlemen of Verona ensemble with, from left, Richard Ruiz, Stacey Sargeant, Noah Weisberg and JD Webster [photo by Michal Daniel]; backstage on the Thoroughly Modern Millie tour with dance partner Joe Langworth; with Two Gents' leading ladies, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Rosario Dawson. 

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