BWW Interview: Meet Nikita Burshteyn: Bay Area's Rising Star Sets Sights on Broadway  

By Wayman Wong

Nikita Burshteyn, 22, is an award-winning actor who's making a name for himself in the San Francisco Bay Area, and not just because he's got a tricky name to pronounce. When he played Judas in ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' at STAGE 1 Theater in Newark, Linda and Nick Hodges of raved: ''The show should be renamed 'Nikita Burshteyn Superstar.' The theater should be filled with talent agents waiting to give him an offer.'' When he played Tony in ''West Side Story'' at Broadway by the Bay in Redwood City, Joanne Engelhardt of the Palo Alto Daily News gushed: ''With Tom Cruise-good looks and an angelic voice, Burshteyn is the real deal.'' And when he did his San Francisco cabaret act, ''Livin' Nikita Loca,'' Richard Connema of Talkin' Broadway compared his ''full-throated voice and flawless phrasing'' to Jonathan Groff's.

In the past three years, the 6-foot-tall actor has played a bucket list of a dozen young, leading-men roles. Others include: Frederic in ''The Pirates of Penzance'' and Marius in ''Les Miserables'' at Tri-Valley Rep in Pleasanton; Tommy in ''Carrie'' at the Ray of Light Theatre in San Francisco; Matt in ''The Fantasticks'' at Altarena Playhouse in Alameda, and Frank in ''Catch Me If You Can'' at Woodminster Summer Musicals in Oakland.

Over the weekend, the UC-Berkeley pre-law student made his Berkeley Playhouse debut in the Tony-winning ''Urinetown.'' Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis' satirical musical imagines a futuristic world where water is in short supply, and a corporation charges everyone to use the public restrooms. To pee, or not to pee, that is the question. Burshteyn plays Bobby, a bathroom attendant, flush with the confidence to challenge authority and make the toilets free for everyone. And he stops the show with his galvanizing gospel number, ''Run, Freedom, Run!''

Burshteyn's interests have run the gamut from kung fu (he holds a black belt) to John Legend (he's done a cover of ''All of Me''). But when we met, the former A.C.T. student was bursting to discuss his dream roles on Broadway and what President Trump might make of ''Urinetown.''

Congrats on ''Urinetown''! What it's been like to make your Berkeley Playhouse debut?
Great! It's such a warm and caring company. My cast is unstoppable. They're beautiful people with the sweetest souls. Andrea [J. Love] plays Hope, and she's the loveliest. She's so easy to connect with and gives 110%. Jessica [Coker] is Pennywise, and she's a powerhouse. Jessica amazes me every time I see her. ... I've been lucky to work at so many Bay Area theaters, and we're a community that supports each other.
Did you know ''Urinetown'' before you played Bobby?
Yeah, our high school [in Alameda] did it when I was a junior, and I played Hot Blades Harry. Luckily since then, my vocal coach, Matthew Liebowitz, has really expanded my range. In my research, I also saw the clip of ''Urinetown'' on the Tonys, and you gotta love Hunter Foster.
I once asked Hunter what he loved about playing Bobby, and he said: ''It's everything I've ever wanted to do in a musical: to be funny, to lead a revolution, and to sing a gospel number. It was like 'The Fantasticks,' 'Les Miserables' and 'Dreamgirls' all in one show.''
I love that description. So many different musicals come into ['Urinetown'], and not just the show itself, but into the characters. Bobby takes you on a ride, and you don't stop. I love Bobby's confidence and charm. And when I sing ''Run, Freedom, Run!,'' I wanna burst. It's a blast.
Your director, Danny Cozart, says: '' 'Urinetown' is a cautionary tale about what can happen if we stop paying attention to politics, the environment and the privatization of public programs by greedy corporations.'' What would President Trump think of ''Urinetown''?
Trump probably would think: ''[Charging people for the privilege to pee] is something I would do.'' Our cast has always compared Caldwell B. Cladwell [played by Paul Plain] to Trump. They're both businessmen. For Cladwell, it's the company first. He doesn't care about the people. Senator Fipp [Matt Standley] says Cladwell only thinks of himself, which is what Trump does. We can only hope Trump doesn't go as far as Cladwell.
You've done so many shows in the Bay Area, but tell us about starring in the West Coast premiere of ''Catch Me If You Can.''
It was so wonderful to work at Woodminster; our cast was one of the best bonding experiences I've ever had. And I really fell in love with ''Catch Me If You Can.'' I watched the Leonardo DiCaprio movie dozens of times. And I had played the Broadway CD for months. Aaron Tveit is one of my very favorite actors. His voice is so beautiful. I love that score [by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman], and I knew every song by heart.

In ''Catch Me If You Can,'' Frank is a charming teenage con artist who passes himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. When Leo portrayed him in the movie and Aaron played him on Broadway, they were both around 27. How old were you?
Just 19. It was a lot to handle, and I was dealing with Equity actors who were at least 10 years older. It's a giant role, and it's a 2,000-seat outdoor amphitheater. Sometimes, it got chilly, and planes would fly overhead. ... I was obsessed with that part. By the time we started rehearsals, I totally memorized the script. Frank is 16, but I looked even younger. One critic said I was a 12-year-old mix of James Franco and Jim Carrey.
And that critic said he meant that as a compliment, but ''Catch Me If You Can'' also changed your life in other ways.
A lot of amazing things happened there, including falling in love with my girlfriend, Elizabeth Peterson. I call her Liz. She's a Radio City Rockette and performs in New York a lot. When I was auditioning, everyone was saying, ''The Rockette is here! The Rockette is here!'' But I was so focused on the callback that I thought: ''That's great. But I have to get this part!'' Later, she caught my eye, and she's beautiful. Liz has got long legs for days. If there's an icing to the cake, that was the best one. We've been together for two years now, and it's made me the happiest guy.
I'll bet something else that would make you happy is making your Broadway debut.
Omigosh, that would be my dream. It's in my blood. I'd love to do ''Dear Evan Hansen.'' And I'd like to play Dmitry, Derek Klena's role in ''Anastasia.'' I'm of Russian descent. There are so many guys on Broadway who inspire me: Ramin Karimloo, Aaron Tveit, Derek Klena, Ben Platt, Adam Jacobs, Jeremy Jordan, Zachary Prince, Jonathan Groff, Josh Young. I'm also a big fan of Josh Groban. He's in ''The Great Comet,'' which is Russian and based on ''War and Peace.'' Plus, his version of ''Anthem'' from ''Chess'' is incomparable and perfect. And that role is Russian, too!
So tell me about your Russian heritage. And how do you pronounce your last name?
It's BURSH-stain. I'm a mix of Jewish and German descent. I was born in a town called Angren in Uzbekistan. I came to the U.S. when I was 6, and I'm a full American citizen. My parents, Andrey and Casey, speak Russian, and so do I. I've been performing since I was 3, and they've supported me and my brother, Danila, every step of the way. Danila's a wonderful performer, too, and he just was in ''Billy Elliot'' at Berkeley Playhouse.
Finally, what's in a name? Have some people advised you to switch it to something simpler?
They have. And others say: ''Keep it, it's unique.'' Leonardo DiCaprio was asked to change his name and he refused. I'm trusting it'll all work out.
''Urinetown'' plays now through April 30 at the Berkeley Playhouse, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley, Calif. Box office: (510) 845-8542, ext. 351. Website: Tickets, $25-$40. (April 13 is Pay What You Can: $5-$20.) For more info, visit:

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