Cheshire’s Jonny Orsini, who is featured opposite Nathan Lane in Broadway’s “The Nance,” won TheaterWorld’s Dorothy Loudon Award for excellence in the theater on or off-Broadway. TheaterWorld annually honors debut performances on and off-Broadway. The awards will be presented by Peter Filichia at a June 3 ceremony at the Music Box Theatre in New York.
My recent profile on Orsini:
Jonny Orsini sits in his sparse dressing room on the second floor of the Lyceum Theatre prior to a matinee of Douglas Carter Beane's new play "The Nance."
Orsini is aware of the high stakes gig -- the show is a Lincoln Center Theater production, directed by Broadway veteran Jack O'Brien, starring multiple Tony Award-winner Nathan Lane and featuring Broadway pros Lewis J. Stadlen and Cady Huffman.
The Cheshire native has a Zen-like calm about his association with one of the most eagerly awaited shows of the Broadway season. The play opens Monday.
Orsini plays Ned, the lover of Lane's Chauncey, a burlesque comedian in the late '30s famous for his outrageously swishy characters while offstage he's a conservative Republican -- sophisticated and erudite and drawn to danger. Things change when he meets Ned, a young, naïve, down-on-his-heels man escaping from a fraudulent straight life in upstate New York. Ned is a man looking for love and not afraid of where it leads.
There's a bit of a searcher's soul too in the boyish Orsini, 27, a reader of Eastern philosophy, a runner who competes only with himself, a man who wants to be "a storyteller." When asked about his Broadway debut, he deflects on the glam aspects of the situation. "I just try to do what feels right and help in a way that I'm best suited to help," he says.
He gently brings the spotlight back on the themes of the play. "I feel like the most important thing is to let people know that what they're going through -- they're not alone. That's really all that I focus on. This play is for the sake of anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed of being who they are."
Theater was not part of his experience growing up in suburban Connecticut. He never went to shows around the state and did not participate in plays or musicals when he was at Cheshire High School. In his freshman and sophomore years, he was a sports guy, playing hockey and lacrosse -- and later Ultimate Frisbee, just for fun.
When asked to describe himself then, he says, "I could be a little edgy, self-protective at times, like any teenager who felt insecure. I had friends, but I felt I was going through a transition. I was just trying to figure myself out."
He was drawn to storytelling, he says, first through journalism and photography. When he went to Suffolk University in Boston, a friend who was an actor introduced him to theater -- and he was hooked.
"It wasn't until I realized that plays could be these insane, amazing and powerful experiences -- that's when it hit me viscerally. I felt there was something there in which I could do a better job of storytelling in that way."
He started getting roles in professional Boston productions, including "After Ashley," The Kentucky Cycle" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." In SpeakEasy Stage Company's 2008 production of Beane's "The Little Dog Laughed," he played Alex, the gay hustler.
When Jeremy Jordan (Broadway's "Newsies," TV's "Smash"), who was playing the same role in Hartford's TheaterWorks production of the comedy, was stricken with appendicitis, Orsini came down to Connecticut to complete the run here.
After that, he was off to New York. His first break was in "Cigarette Candy," a short film in which he played a Marine with post-traumatic stress disorder. "I didn't have an agent, but I found the director on Facebook, recorded a monologue, put it on line and sent it to her and said, 'Please let me audition for this role.' So she watched it, said, 'Sure, come in' and I got the role."
Lauren Wolkstein's film did well on the festival circuit. Orsini earned a performance award at the Florida Film Festival "and things progressed from there."
Other roles included "Banished Children of Eve" at Irish Repertory Theatre, David Rabe's "Early History of Fire" at the Acorn Theatre, and parts in the films "Generation Um..." and "Girl Most Likely." Then last year came the opportunity to audition for "The Nance."
GETTING 'THE NANCE'
"When you read something like Doug's script -- like J.D. Salinger says in 'Catcher in the Rye,' you wish you could pick up the phone and call them. That's how I feel about Doug's plays. They have a sharpness and a wit about them but they have so much heart, too. And he tells really important stories."
Orsini describes his character of Ned as having "an open heart that's unashamed to love -- and that's such an admirable quality."
Of being the freshman in the cast he says, "They're not handling me with kid gloves because I'm the new guy. They all trust me and let me do what I do. They really just let me rip and I appreciate that because it's very liberating. Plus, I really get to play with Nathan.
Orsini says Lane is "an encyclopedia of comic history. This play means so much to him and he's an unbelievably dedicated and hard-working guy. I didn't feel intimidated or anything. It was more just, when you get to work with people who are so good at what they do, it's just a great opportunity because you can tell a story the best way possible.
"In terms of interacting with everybody, it couldn't be a better group because everyone is so supportive of each other. It just feels like a good bunch of friends every day. I don't mean to say it's all just fun, but we are having such a blast."
And his acting style and process?
"To tell you the truth, I really don't consider myself a performer. The way I think of what I do is that I just respond honestly to what's in front of me -- which fits perfectly with the context of the play as this new kid who comes into this burlesque world."
Outside the theater, Orsini tries to stay focused and calm. He runs non-competitively." I compete against myself. That's how I gauge anything I do. I focus on process, not results so that's why I don't really do track. It's very relaxing. I also read a lot of Eastern philosophy."
Orsini says he's confining his music and film-watching to the pre-1940 era. "It's not that I don't have interests beyond the play but I do believe living in the world you're working in so that's my focus right now."
Though he never had a master plan or strategy in his career he feels fulfilled having found something at this point of his life "to help people feel that they are not alone. It happened to be acting and it happened to bring me here."
THE NANCE, now in previews, opens Monday at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York. Telecharge at 212-239-6200 and www.lct.org.
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