WRITTEN BY NEAL ZOREN
For Digital First Media
Justin Guarini may not have the superstar status Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood attained during their appearances on “American Idol,” but he has parlayed his early fame into something just as remarkable.
After considering what suits him best, Guarini returned to the place he found his first joy as an entertainer, the theater, and has built a reputation as a solid performer who exudes the same charisma on stage that propelled him to a cliffhanger finish on “Idol’s” inaugural season when he finished second to Clarkson.
One of Guarini’s first forays into professional theater was at the Media Theatre, where he played Billy Flynn in Jennie Eisenhower’s production of “Chicago.” That impressive stint was followed by a series of performances in which Guarini brought class to mediocre productions that benefited from his sincerity and ease — an otherwise abominable “Romeo and Juliet” in which only he and Orlando Bloom brought emotion and reality to their parts, and a recent Encores staging of “Paint Your Wagon,” in which Guarini, playing an outsider in a mining town, brought intensity and romance to a lackluster show.
Guarini continues to marry theater with television. He was recently selected to be co-host of a live program that took TV audiences to a Broadway festival where they could see performances and be introduced to some of the stars who rarely get exposure outside of New York.
Currently, Guarini is using his ability to find the humanity in a character in an intelligent, likeable performance as Bobby, the bachelor all his friends want to see married in Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Company,” at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse, where he’ll be through Sunday, June 21.
Guarini likes to look at each side of a situation. His first answer to most questions is “yes and no.” In that context, he said he was not surprised that Fox canceled “American Idol” after several successful seasons, some of which it spent on the top of the national ratings heap.
“When I first heard, I was surprised because the show still has an audience, even if its ratings have diminished,” Guarini said. “In thinking more about it, I realized that like any landmark show, it had seen its time. The fan base had been chipped away. It was time for the format to rest. This will give the producers and the network a chance to take stock of what they had. I believe we will see ‘American Idol’ again, not so much in a different format with renewed energy. It’s like a Disney movie. It’s put in a vault for a while, and when it’s brought out again, everyone is happy to see it.
“We would not be talking to each other today if it was not for ‘American Idol,’” Guarini continued. “I am very fortunate that I answered the audition for that show and was chosen. ‘American Idol’ is the catalyst for everything I’ve done. I couldn’t more grateful. There’s no way of knowing what might have happened had I not decided to audition for ‘American Idol.’ I don’t think I would have been known as fast. ‘American Idol’ spared me years of anonymity, even if the work I was doing someplace else would be considered amazing. It’s the foundation for my entire career. It took me from being unknown to being nationally famous in a matter of weeks.
“I could have been in my first Broadway musical, ‘The Lion King,’ if I had not opted to try out for ‘Idol.’ It was a real crossroads. I had to consider when to go to Hollywood and be part of this program no one had heard of or fulfill a longtime dream to be in a Broadway show, one of the biggest hits of all time. I made my choice, which by now is obvious. My life and career have been a kind of rollercoaster, but I’ve settled into what I love to do, and I see the future as amazing.”
Guarini is modest and diplomatic when complimented for standing out so luminously in shows where others created no sparks.
“The casts of some of the shows I’ve done are so extraordinary,” Guarini said. “I keep my eyes open and study how Patti LuPone or Brian Stokes Mitchell or Keith Carradine approach a character or scene and see if there’s anything in their technique that will help me prepare and perform. It could be something as subtle as the way they memorize their lines. You observe wonderful people, and you learn a lot.”
Guarini described Bobby, his part in “Company,” as “such a bucket list role,” one he had hoped to have the chance to play.
“Sondheim’s music is so gorgeous, and telling this amazing story is such a treat,” Guarini said. “I want honesty to be the basis of my work. The process toward finding honesty begins when I receive the script. I start looking for ways that I am like the character. Not the ways the character is like me, but how I am like the character. You can’t play something you don’t know. You can imitate or play at an emotion or a characteristic. So you have to find the things in the character that you know and are part of you.
“With Bobby, I saw a man who has gone through much of what I went through before I met my wife, Reina, and we got married. Bobby feels good. On the surface, his life looks enviable. He has a good job that gives him the money to lead the life he enjoys. He has dozens of friends, 10 of whom we meet in ‘Company.’ He dates four different women, each of whom adds something to his life or lets him see what he doesn’t want.
“Bobby is wary of commitment. He wants to get married, as his friends are and coax him to be, but he is afraid of what he might have to give up once he agrees to marry. He asks, ‘What do you have to give up in order to get the life you think you want?’ It’s a question of give versus gain.
“I had to learn that for myself. When I met the woman who made me question how I was living and what marriage might hold, the answers became clear. Once you’re married for a while, you learn the give and take necessary. You see how you grow in same and different directions and fuse together again because of your love. Bobby has not experienced that. He is in the state of considering whether or not to commit, and needs to find the woman to be his partner. Both my experience and his quest are fascinating. I know the character. I can play him. I can be him on stage.”
Guarini not only gained a wife when he married Reina. He is twice a father, and he became part of a close-knit family, the Capodicis of Bucks County. When he did a 2014 Valentine’s Day concert at Bucks County Playhouse, his father-in-law, Bernie Capodici, and others from Reina’s family formed his back-up band. The Capodicis perform, sometimes with Guarini as vocalist, in a band called The Payback.
Taking a stand for Alex
This Thursday, from 6 a.m.-8 p.m., channels 3 and 57, with the help of some CBS Radio partners, will raise funds for Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which helps conduct research into pediatric cancer of the kind that ended the life of Alex Scott at age 8. Scott began selling lemonade to help kids with cancer when she was 4 years old.
Pledges can be made by check or credit card by calling 1-844-977-CBS3 (1-844-977-2273) or by visiting www.CBSPhilly.com/standforhope. As a veteran director of development for charities, I can tell you credit card is more effective because the pledge is fulfilled immediately and involves less time and paperwork. Those economies also mean more of your gift will go to the charity’s mission, as there’s less processing and labor needed.
Kathy Orr, Chris May, Jessica Dean, Erika von Tiehl, Pat Ciarrocchi and Stephanie Stahl will be the main anchors during the 14-hour duration of the telethon. Also on hand are CBS News correspondent Tracy Smith, actress Bailee Madison, frequent program host Marc Summers, and Big 5 basketball coaches Fran Dunphy, Phil Martelli, John Giannini and Bruiser Flint.
The Phillie Phanatic and Swoop, the Eagles mascot, will appear. Radio folks Valerie Knight, Marc Farzetta, Cherri Gregg, Ross Brittain, Frank Lewis, Razz and Bex also pitch in for the cause.