North Carolina native Jake Wesley Stewart has been on quite a roll since appearing in the Ovation Award-winning City Kid The Musical less than two years ago. He followed the hip-hopping musical with some Irish jigging to “wake the dead” in Open Fist’s production of James Joyce’s The Dead, then a summer of Shakespeare—followed by a featured role in Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera.  More recently, Jake appeared multiple roles in Big The Musical, understudying and going on in the lead role of Adult Josh, and is poised to dazzle and captivate audiences once again in the L.A. Intimate Theater premiere of the hit off-Broadway musical Altar Boyz. Somehow, Jake found time in his hectic performance/rehearsal schedule to sit down and talk with us about his life as an up-and-coming musical theater star.

Hi Jake. Let’s get started with the usual first question, one about your childhood. Tell me, how did a North Carolina boy end up in musical theater?

Well, I’m a sports fanatic, and that runs in the family. I grew up playing baseball and swimming during every free moment of the day.  My father, a college quarterback, even went to the extent of building a batting cage in our backyard.  (I don’t even want to imagine how much this cost him).  


So how did you get from the batting cage to the musical theater stage?

It started when I got stuck into a drama class my freshman year of high school and realized that this was something I was even more passionate about. The next year I decided to try my luck at music class, where I found out I had some talent there too.  So over the next few years, batting cages and pitching lessons gave way to musicals and dance lessons. 
How did your dad react to his baseball-playing son’s interest in things musical?

Needless to say, my father was less than pleased at first, but he came around. Performing was never something my parents expected from the shy baseball jock, but it really helped me to come into my own and find more confidence in myself.  I ended up looking for musical theater programs and was given a full academic scholarship to study at East Carolina University. They offered not only a musical theater BFA, but a well-established acting conservatory based on the Neighborhood Playhouse Meisner program in New York.  I’m grateful that I trained there before I moved directly to L.A.

The first time I saw you on stage was in City Kid, a very contemporary world premiere rock/hiphop musical and then only a few months later, you traveled a hundred years back to 1904 Ireland in James Joyce’s The Dead. Talk about two night and day different shows! How did City Kid and The Dead compare, and what made each a special experience for you?


Those were both wonderful shows to be involved in. The greatest part was working with two distinct physicalities and dance styles and with two amazing choreographers!  My part in City Kid was more of a singing role and all of the dancing, body language was an urban, hip-hop style, which I imitated as much as a cracker could.  (Laughs)  Bradley Rapier, who was recently seen on Superstars Of Dance on NBC, was amazing in working with us on the feel of that piece.   

And then?

Then there was ‘The Dead’ with the Open Fist Theatre Co. which set back my physicality 100 years. I tried to incorporate the posture of that era as I led the dances in the first act. Christine Sang was wonderful to work with. We both learned our way through that style of dance as the show progressed.  I was very proud of my work in that show as well.

You followed those two shows touring last summer with the independANT Players doing Shakespeare up and down the west coast. You were Petruccio in The Taming Of The Shrew, right? How different was doing a non-musical, and Shakespeare no less, after performing in a bunch of musicals? 

I absolutely love straight plays.  Shakespeare is just as physical and stylized as any dance routine so I still have plenty of specifics to memorize in a Bard play.  Plays and film work are an equal passion of mine and I hope my career will let me enjoy both art forms, because they are equally fulfilling.

Next up came The Threepenny Opera, directed by Jules Aaron, at ICT in Long Beach. How did performing in a Kurt Weill classic compare to more contemporary musicals in terms of the music, the style of acting, etc.?

Having a moustache was irritating, but worth it.

         Jake(center) in The Threepenny Opera

Besides the moustache?

Threepenny was a great stretch for my character work.  It’s a heightened sense of reality already, and Jules wanted a Stooges/Chaplinesque physicality on top of that to portray the comedy. This was a physically and vocally taxing show for all of us. It was also an amazing cast and I feel privileged to have worked with all of them.

Continuing your successful “roll,” you got to be part of perhaps the first L.A.-based production of Big The Musical. I understand that director Richard Israel combined the best of the original Broadway production and of the rather different National Tour. What was it like creating this “hybrid” production? 

 Jake is top row #3 (l.) and top row #1 (r.)

Well, it made parts of the script “null and void”, so that got a little confusing when we had our first few rehearsals.  (Laughs)  But really, Richard has an incredible eye for what is essential to a piece and what can be thrown out.  I believe that’s why the our production was so powerful and charming.  The amazing Will Collyer and Darrin Revitz also “fleshed out” many of the character aspects that may have been missing from other productions. I also think, because of Richard’s editing, that our version would read better on paper than any production of Big so far.  

Your track in the show consisted of at least five different roles. How did this compare with say City Kid, in which you had only one role to worry about?

Well it was a ton of fun to play that many roles, but it also taught me how to use my character to enhance the main actors in the scene, as opposed to standing out or showboating in the background.  I’m thinking specifically of “Tammy” the New York drag queen. I had fun with Sterling Beaumon during his song, not to pull focus, but to show an aspect of his tough guy character. “He’s a big boy and he ain’t afraid of no drag queen.” I think an ensemble role can be integral if you make the choices that help the audience, not distract them.

You got to jump into the lead role of the adult Josh a pair of times, and you did a fantastic job. Tell us a bit about what it was like to play such a big (no pun intended) role with only the barest minimum of rehearsal time. How did you stop from being a nervous wreck as the performance date approached?

I was pretty terrified because of the lack of dress rehearsals, so I didn’t stop being nervous. Fortunately, this only helped the first couple of scenes.  Josh was such a great character because he grows up so drastically from Act One to Two. He gains confidence and poise, and even convinces himself at one point that he’s ready for adulthood, which he comes to realize is not the case.  I think my focus on the scenes helped me eventually forget how nervous I was.

Speaking of jumping into something with minimum rehearsal, what was it like to perform in See Saw for Musical Theatre Guild, an entire production put together with just 25 hours of rehearsal? Would you like to do it again?

Absolutely!  That was a great experience!  Musical Theatre Guild has an uncanny ability to put on high quality productions in just a weekend.  It was a whirlwind rehearsal process. Todd Neilsen is wonderful to work with and had already made his choices so perfectly that we all just fit into the mold he’d created.

You’ve worked with three of our finest directors in the past year. What do master directors Jules Aaron, Richard Israel, and Todd Neilsen bring to a project that a lesser talent doesn’t?

The caliber of these three directors is in the stratosphere. All three of these men created a great atmosphere to work in and pushed their actors to the limit to achieve the best results.  One of the best attributes I saw in all of them was the ability to help the actor deliver a “punch line” with clarity to help the comedy of the piece.

And now you’re rehearsing one of my favorite shows of the past few seasons, Altar Boyz. I’ve seen three productions already, and can’t wait to see what director Patrick Pearson and choreographer Ameenah Kaplan come up with! Have you seen the show before? 

No, I’ve never seen the show before. I’d only heard a couple of the songs before I was cast so I have no preconceived notions of what it should be.  

How different do you think Altar Boyz will be in an intimate theater setting?  

I think it really works in an intimate setting.  The Celebration Theatre is a wonderful space to work in and I think the intimacy will let the audience enjoy the show and the characters even more. 

What’s the biggest challenge and biggest reward for you in playing Luke?

The biggest challenge in playing Luke is keeping his energy up throughout the show.  He’s a rough guy with a temper and to make the moments seem real and still funny takes a lot of physicalization.  The two biggest rewards are getting to work on another character idea and rocking the house with a gospel solo. I’ve given Luke an accent, plus some “thug-life” mannerisms, so it’s different than anything I’ve done recently.  Plus, “Mind, Body, and Soul” is such a fun number for us, that I hope the audience enjoys “Bringin’ in some Church” as much as we do!

You’re getting cast in all these great musicals, but you’re an L.A. based actor, so does this mean that film and TV is where your ambitions lie, or is L.A. a step on your way to a New York/Broadway career? What are your career goals over the next few years?

I’ve always felt like my career should begin in L.A. I’m really hungry for that T.V./Film career that would allow me to do what I want with the rest of my time.  I would love to be invited to New York auditions once I’ve established something here in L.A. I’d love to live in New York at some point.  I love working out my acting chops in plays and musicals, but my more immediate goal is to get started in T.V./Film, and that will be most likely to happen here in L.A.

Thanks Jake for taking the time to answer our questions. I’m so excited about seeing Altar Boyz #4, and don’t be surprised if you see me in the audience more than once! I can’t wait!

Watch Jake in “Never Enough Stuff” from City Kid The Musical.  (Jake’s the first one to sing.)

Listen to Jake sing “Get Through To You”  

Listen to Jake sing  “In The Inside” from City Kid.

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