Anyone in musical theater looking for a tall, talented, redheaded triple-threat could do no better than seek out San Diego’s very own Justin Michael Duval.  Currently appearing as 7-year-old Peter Barinsky (and Doodle The Poodle) in South Coast Repertory’s The Brand New Kid, Justin has been pounding the boards from a very early age. Earlier this year, he followed a starring role (as Potsie) in the National Tour of Happy Days with multiple roles in the Tony-nominated musical A Year With Frog And Toad, also at South Coast Rep.  Justin took advantage of his first free time since teching and previewing The Brand New Kid to chat with us about what’s been, what is, and what’s up next for this multitalented performer.

Justin, you’re much too young to have 15 years experience as an actor.  How did you get started at such an early age?
Well, I was lucky to have wonderful parents who supported me in all I aspired to.  I ran across theater early, on the kitchen counter, so going back to my first performance there, it’s about twenty years experience. But I really feel in love with theater and acting in Jr. High. I attended Wangenheim Middle School in San Diego and had a wonderful mentor in a teacher by the name of Loren Salters. He saw the potential in me and helped me and my parents cultivate that talent. I also happened to be in the center of a wonderful theater community in San Diego where I was able to work at Moonlight, The Old Globe, Encore Youth Theatre, San Diego Jr. Theatre, and Christian Youth Theatre.  I had a multitude of places to practice my craft. 

Like a bunch of other very talented performers I know, you got your BFA in Musical Theater from Cal State Fullerton. What is it that gives CSUF’s Theater Department such a great reputation as a training ground for would-be musical theater stars?
I feel that CSUF is known and has its reputation for exactly the reason you mention. CSUF is not in the business of training chorus boys and girls. I look at their program and they are cultivating young principal actors. I was so lucky to have the chance to work with people like Mara Davi and Dashaun Young, both of whom are becoming Broadway vets.  The faculty is also a major reason for our Alumni success.  People like Mitch Hanlon, the musical guru at CSUF, are willing to give their blood sweat and tears right alongside with the students to make us the best we can be.

Congratulations on twice being nominated for an Irene Ryan award at CSUF.  What were your favorite roles as a student there?

I have to say that my favorite role was actually in a one-act called A List Of Reasons To Live. It was the first time I ever got to take on a meaty acting role in my career and it was such a blessing, and I was able to learn so much about myself as an actor. I also fell in love with working on Timon of Athens. I truly learned to love working with Shakespeare’s text. And I guess being a BFA in Musical Theater I’d have to tell you my favorite musical role, and that would be Daniel Gaddis in the wonderful musical Weird Romance, which is not done enough!

You’ve had the good fortune of performing at many of Southern California’s best regional theaters. Which of them stands out for you the most?
I’d have to say that hands down I’ve enjoyed my work with South Coast Rep the most. They are a wonderful theater focused on producing theater for everyone, with new works every year, and of course my personal favorites are the wonderful Theatre For Young Audiences productions which I’ve been so lucky to take part in twice this year.

You’ve had roles in musical theater classics like Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, and Guys And Dolls as well as more recent or even World Premiere productions. How do the two experiences compare?
Performing iconic roles like Will Parker in Oklahoma! is wonderful.  You get to work with material that is some of the best there has ever been and has stood the test of time.  However, I will admit that there is such an excitement to taking on a role that has never been done and creating it from the ground up. There are no expectations of having to be like another performer.  I love the feeling of being able to introduce a character to an audience for the first time!

Justin (top right) with his Happy Days buddies and in rehearsal (c.)

You got to originate the role of Potsie in the National Tour of Happy Days.  What was it like to take on such an iconic role and to work with
TV/film legend Garry Marshall?

Being Potsie was tough.  It was a role I stepped into and knew that I had to resemble Anson Williams, but I was also able to bring my own flair to the role. It was something that took work as I had to find a mix of the two.  As for working with Garry, it was EPIC! He is such a talented man and is so warm and genuine, and wow does the man have some wonderful stories!

   Justin (r.) with his A Year With Frog And Toad costar Alex Miller

I understand that your favorite recent roles were the trio of animals you brought to life in A Year With Frog And Toad. What was it that made this particular show so memorable for you, and how was it working with the genius that is Nick DeGruccio?

As many know, this was my first show after leaving Happy Days. It was such a blessing.  Being able to be a snail, a lizard, a bird, a frog, and a large and terrible frog was amazing, so actually it was five animals I brought to life. The show is just so wonderfully written with music that showcases everyone performing it. My greatest moment to date on stage was singing “I’m Coming Out Of My Shell.” Working for Nick was also a blessing.  He is a director who really knows how to connect with his actors and bring the best out in them.  It was wonderful to be able to learn from him and at the end of the day gain a new friend.

Justin with Jennifer Chang and Justin Figueroa in The Brand New Kid

Right now you’re appearing in The Brand New Kid, your second Theatre For Young Audiences production at South Coast Rep. What makes these TYA productions such special experiences?

People tend to shy away from TYA productions.  They assume they are for kids and don’t have the production values of other shows. Well at South Coast Rep this is not the case.  The TYA productions have something for everyone.  In the case of The Brand New Kid, it’s a wonderful story about acceptance of something different. 

What is it that you hope kids and their parents will get out of The Brand New Kid?

I think kids can take so much away from this production, and so can the parents, especially with the times today and the struggle people are still having to find acceptance.  Another thing that makes these shows so special is that for many children it’s their first time at the theater, and being able to take part in that is very special to me.

Your big thing is clearly musical theater, so how do you feel about doing a non-musical play or film/TV/commercial work?

I love being able to strip away the music and dancing and just be someone honest on stage. I’ve loved the opportunities I’ve had doing Shakespeare and other plays and hope to do many more.  As for TV and film work I have dabbled there working on some small films, and doing a Chevy Commercial in the past year, so if anyone is in Europe, keep your eyes open for it!

Any dream roles you’d love to undertake, hopefully in the not-so-distant future?

There is one role that jumps to my mind right away and that is Leaf
Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I just love the character, and his story.  I would also love to play Emmett in Legally Blonde and Mark in Rent.  But right now, I’m open to any role.

Since Broadway represents the pinnacle of musical theater probably in the world, any plans to give the Great White Way your best shot?

Absolutely!  I’m actually in the process of securing housing in New York through The Actors Fund. I’d like to mention The Actors Fund and thank them for all the wonderful support they give to actors across America.  The Great White Way is the pinnacle and my goal.  I’ve worked with great regional theaters and been on tour, so the next step would be Broadway. However, I know they don’t just hand out roles so I’m planning on working hard and just being passionate about what I love to do, and I hope along with my talent it may just lead me to the Great White Way!

Where would you like to see yourself career-wise five years from now?

I don’t know, and right now I’m okay with that.  I do know I want to be able to have a family in the future and just be happy. As for now, I am a young man getting to live out my dream.  I’m open to any and every opportunity life has in store for me.  I’ve realized and come to accept that I only hold so much of the future in my hands; the rest is up to someone a little more powerful.  So if it’s Broadway or regional theater, a national tour or just starting a family and teaching the Arts to young talented actors I can’t say.  I will just keep plugging away, pounding the pavement, keeping my eyes open for the next step!

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