Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reel Thoughts Interview: Comic Karma Chameleon

Back in 1984 or so, in the heady days of Phoenix gay hot spot Hotbods, you could count on seeing a young guy decked out like Boy George, with an LP on his head for a hat and plenty of rag-cloth dreadlocks. Everyone called him “Trashdance”, and I don’t think anyone ever knew his real name.

I thought of “Trashdance” when I talked to actor Ben Martin, who plays George in the musical The Wedding Singer. Based on the hit film starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, the musical is a loving homage to all things totally awesome and ’80s, including big hair, Bon Jovi, Billy Idol and, of course, Boy George.

Like in the film, aspiring rocker Robbie Hart is the king of the wedding singers until his no-good fiancée dumps him on their wedding day. It takes the love of a good woman and the support of his band to pull him out of his funk.

The current touring production features full sets from the Broadway company, but is produced by the Prather Entertainment Group (owners of the Broadway Palm). Robbie and Julia are played by real-life husband and wife J. Michael Zygo and Jillian Zygo in a show that’s an affectionate look at the era of leg warmers and Miami Vice T-shirts, built around a sweet love story.

Martin plays Robbie’s Boy George impersonator band mate (portrayed in the original film by Alexis Arquette). In his pictures, Martin looks more like Dead or Alive front man Pete Burns, an observation that made him laugh.

Martin was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and gravitated to the arts at an early age. His love of performing took him to Emerson College in Boston, then to performing professionally. After a stint at the now-closed Northshore Music Theatre, he began work with the Prathers, where he has appeared in Hello, Dolly! and All Shook Up.

“I did have to brush up on my Boy George knowledge,” Martin said. “I was 5 when the ’80s ended, so my scope of music (then) was Sesame Street and Disney movies. I did have to do a bit of research on him. He’s very, very fascinating; quite original, really. Besides watching his music videos and reading up on him, through the magic of YouTube, I was able to watch an interview with him and Barbara Walters from 1985, which is when The Wedding Singer takes place.”

Martin said his character really identifies with Boy George’s individuality and style, and quoted Boy George as saying that “he didn’t want to be part of a world where ‘men drank beer and women laid on their backs.’ He was there to challenge the rules that we have created. He really loved life and loved to have fun, but the messages in his music were really deep. Even though my George is written more as comic relief, he still needs to come from somewhere real.

“I spend a lot of stage time with the grandma (Ellen Karsten), and we get to have a lot of fun and we get to rap together. The cast is really great and it’s a very close-knit group of people.”

The company does a lot of traveling by bus, and Martin said the interior of the bus is laid out for the cast like the city of Manhattan, with downtown types, uptown girls (and guys), et cetera. On the tour's official YouTube channel, you can watch some backstage videos posted by the cast, detailing their life on the road.

For more information on The Wedding Singer tour, including future dates and locations, visit the show's official website.

Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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