I first met Jamie Torcellini in my junior year at the United States International University School of Performing and Visual Arts. He was a diminutive young Gene Kelly type who had grown up in San Diego’s Jr. Theatre program. We acted together in a main-stage production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, where he was anything but type-cast as the Courtesan peddler Marcus Lycus, and I was (at age 20) the venerable and dotty Erronius.
Before the end of my senior year, Jamie was off and running into a career that has now gone on nearly 40 years, as he was cast in a national tour of A Chorus Line. In the following year his company appeared in a TV special “Baryshnikov on Broadway”, with Misha himself joining them in the vaunted “One” finale from A Chorus Line.
Nearly 40 years later, Jamie is still wowing the crowds, having been on Broadway and touring in any number of great roles. He’s soon to be seen as Scuttle the Seagull in 5th Avenue Theatre’s holiday production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. It was fun catching up with this delightful man shortly after his arrival for rehearsals in Seattle.
How did you first get involved in theatre?
In Jr. High School I began to get a taste of the theatre when my teacher asked me to audition for Linus in Merry Christmas Charlie Brown. It was there that I met other theatre students that I became friends with and they talked me into joining San Diego Jr. Theatre. It was a weekend program where we took scene study classes, and musical theatre dance classes. We also did about 3 shows a year, and if we weren’t cast in the show, we worked on the crew, wardrobe, props, etc. It was an incredible opportunity to learn all aspects of the theatre and have a real respect for everybody’s responsibility in the getting the show up and having it run smoothly.
I also performed in the summers at San Diego Starlight between 1975 to 1979, and had the opportunity to play Tommy Djilas in The Music Man, and Prince Chulalongkorn in The King and I, among many other shows. There we got the opportunity to work with a handful of Union professional actors who were guest artists. An incredible learning opportunity.
You were one of the triple-threat, heavy-hitter song and dance guys in college. What did you take away from your time there?
I think the thing I got that was very special, was to be handpicked by the Ballet Teacher, Wayne Davis, to go directly into Intermediate Ballet and 3 months later, he placed me into the Advanced class. Before College, I had never had a single Ballet class, but he saw something in me, pushed me as hard as he could, and gave me lots of attention, and made me the technician I became. Absolutely invaluable.
I got so much knowledge in such a short time. It was intense.
You left college to do a Equity National tour of A Chorus Line. How long were you with it?
Back in those days, big touring shows would actually audition replacements in almost every city we traveled. After the audition, they brought me back to the office, offered me the show and told me I would be joining them on the road (Seattle’s 5th Avenue!) I started as the swing, and learned all my roles that I would cover, and then moved into the role of Mike Costa (“I Can Do That”) after 2 months.
You and the cast performed “One” with Mikhail Baryshnikov on TV. What was that like?
It was a dream come true, because it was my all time favorite show. To this day, it was one of the most exciting shows to be a part of. That opening sequence always gave me butterflies, and I loved every single part of the experience.
Baryshnikov on Broadway was icing on the cake. And because he was the same height as me, Michael Bennett inserted Misha right next to me in the line. He was still getting used to not only the language, but also the lyrics. So between takes he would ask me to help him with the tongue twister, “uncommonly rare, very unique, peripatetic, poetic and chic.” Having been a huge fan of his, it was the first time I realized that such a big star could be such a shy and humble person. Awesome. Sexy and awesome.
You’ve spent a lot of time working on Broadway, working on some amazing shows and with some amazing people. Who left the biggest impression on you?
I think the one that had the biggest impression on me was Robert Lindsay, the original star of Me and My Girl. Robert was the reason the show was such a big hit. He was brilliantly funny, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. And his love for the company was so strong, we were known as the happiest show on Broadway.
When it came time to cast the touring company of Me and My Girl, the stage managers asked me to audition to understudy the lead. I wasn’t sure why they asked me, as it wasn’t even on my radar. After much grilling, I found out that Robert had gone to them and suggested me because he had seen the qualities necessary to play the role. Then Jimmy Brennan, Robert’s current standby, came and told me to come into work early all week, and he would teach me everything I needed for my audition.
That’s the kind of company they were. Always helping each other. No ego, just the nicest group of people to ever work with. After I graduated from understudying the part and I took over the role, I did about 19 other productions of it all over the country for the next 10 years.
You were there during the rise of the HIV-AIDS epidemic when it decimated Broadway. As a gay man, how did that impact you?
I’m not gay, but my husband is.
It’s always painful to talk about it. It was devastating. One of the first people I knew to be taken too early was the director of A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett. Someone we worked so closely with was suddenly gone.
We knew so little about it. We just knew that for some reason, it was taking our friends from us. And quickly. That disease swept through so many of our coworkers, choreographers and directors, and our close, close friends. It had such a stigma back then, and all we could do would be to help grocery shop, clean their apartments, and do as much as we could when they could no longer help themselves.
Not all of my friends had the support of their families. They didn’t have anyone else to help them but their circle of friends. There was no AIDS Foundation, no Equity Fights AIDS, nothing. The government wasn’t even talking about it. It made us all a very tight community.
You have been part of The Little Mermaid tours in the recent past. How is the show different now compared to its ill-fated stint on Broadway?
I hate to say this, but I never saw it on Broadway, so I can’t speak to what’s different. I can say that this version, Glenn Casale’s version, was blessed by Disney, and has edited some extraneous scenes to get to the real story much quicker. Also, the flying in the show is all Glenn’s idea. Michael Heitzman, who is filling in as our associate director until Glenn joins us next week, worked very closely with Glenn on this new concept.
How long have you and your husband Chuck been together? Is it hard being a show-biz couple?
We originally met in the 90’s in New York City when Chuck was my best friend’s roommate. We never dated back then, as our timing was off. And to tell you the truth, I’m not that sure either of us would have been ready back then. Our paths took us in different directions, and eventually to different states. But with the magic of Facebook, we reunited and started to talk much more frequently. He came out from Chicago to visit me in California. We knew instantly that we were destined for much more, and after dating long distance for at least a year, he made the big move to CA, and we got married about a year after it became legal.
Chuck isn’t in showbiz anymore, but because of his theatre experience, he understands the necessity of touring, and we do our best to make that work for both of us. We don’t love being apart, but FaceTime makes it so much nicer to see each other at least 2 times a day. Yes, we talk at least that much everyday.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid plays November 23-December 31, 2016 at The 5th Avenue Theatre. For tickets (starting at $36) and information, visit 5thavenue.org, call (206) 625-1900 or visit the Box Office.