Jay Frisby, sailing into history with 'South Pacific'

Six years ago, Jay Frisby appeared on Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre stage as a high school student at Glenelg Country School competing for a prestigious Cappies Award. This week, he is back at the Hippodrome performing as a professional in the big-budget national tour of "South Pacific."

Any way you slice it, that's a lightning-fast career leap, and a sign that the future is promising indeed. For Frisby, though, his casting as Tom, one of the singing, dancing sailors on a beleaguered World War II Pacific island, represented more than just the thrill of landing a part in a classic musical revival.

He is positively passionate that theater should be "rooted in reality," as he stressed by telephone from Boston last week. And "South Pacific" deals quite candidly with the racial bias of several of its characters, including members of the U.S. Navy "construction battalions," dubbed the Seabees.

"It's important to dig into roles that deal with social issues," said Frisby. He could have been thinking back to the controversy stirred up by Glenelg Country School when it cast him as Huck Finn opposite a fellow white student's portrayal of the runaway slave, Jim, in "Big River."

Managers of the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate, which controls the performing rights to "Big River," got wind of the non-traditional casting and denied the school permission to recreate one of the key songs from the show in the Cappies awards program. The controversy made national headlines, and left Frisby uncertain about his chances in New York.

"I was a bit nervous about auditioning for another Rodgers & Hammerstein musical," Frisby confided with a chuckle. "But after three call-backs, I got the part, and I was thrilled."

According to the actor's mother, June Frisby, fate always played a role in his show business career. "Jay's eyes lit up the moment he saw his first show, when he was still in kindergarten at Bryant Woods Elementary School." She soon had him enrolled at the Columbia School for Theatrical Arts, where his talent brought him to the attention of Toby Orenstein and earned him a spot in the Young Columbians.

As a teen-ager, Frisby performed the tortured role of Coalhouse Walker in the CCTA production of "Ragtime," a part his mother believes molded his dedication to his art. "He had to handle the responsibility of portraying the feelings of a man beaten down by the system in early-20th century America. That role was life-changing for Jay."

At Yale University, Frisby sang with the Whiffenpoofs, danced and choreographed several college productions, and graduated in 2010 with a BA in theater studies. Through it all, he took an active interest in studying history, and "never lost his quiet determination for justice," adds his mother.

The Frisby family first moved to Columbia after hearing city planner Jim Rouse speak about the enlightened racial visions he had in mind for his "New City." While the Frisbys still reside in Hobbits Glen, the soon-to-be 25-year-old actor is currently based inNew York City.

As for his background training, Jay Frisby gives credit to Glenelg Country Middle School musical director Rayna Woodford for her early encouragement, and to Carol Graham Lehan, who directed him in shows like "Guys and Dolls," "Once On This Island," "Godspell" and "Into the Woods" before casting him against type in the controversial "Big River."

"I'm not at all surprised at Jay's success," says Glenelg teacher Debra Devoe, who worked with Frisby on the Cappies presentation. "He reaches across the footlights. When he's on stage, you can't take your eyes off of him. He's professional through and through."

That will no doubt be the case again with "South Pacific," based on the well-reviewed 2008 Lincoln Center production, and directed by Sarna Lapine.

"Everyone I've ever known has contacted my mom to say they will be coming to this show," said Frisby. "My mother even announced it at a church service."

They will be joined by the legions of fans who have seen previous stagings of this musical adaptation of James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Tales of the South Pacific."

Jay Frisby hopes they will leave with something more than just the show's great songs running through their heads. "I want the audience to look at these timeless themes of race and war — and dig into that. As the show tells us, we've got to be taught to hate."

"South Pacific" continues at the Hippodrome Theatre through Sunday, Oct. 9. Show times are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $22.2 to $82.25, available at the box office, or Charge-by-Phone at 410-547-SEAT and on line at http://www.broadwayacrossamerica.com.

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