Hometown: Gilbert, Arizona
Currently: Making his Broadway debut in Jersey Boys as Bob Gaudio, the composer whose hit songs catapulted the Four Seasons to superstardom.
Theatrical Family: “It’s in my blood,” Jesse says of the stage, sharing stories of a happy childhood spent observing his theater professor parents put on shows at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona. “They built the theater program from the ground up,” he says proudly, “so from the age of four, I’d sit in the back during rehearsals doing my homework. If they needed extras for a church scene or something, I would stand onstage.” His own ambitions ignited when he first set foot in the local junior high school’s drama classroom, which was filled with props and set pieces. “I thought to myself, ‘There can’t be anything in the world more exciting and fun than this. If there’s any possible way people would pay you to do this, why would anybody want to do anything else?’”
Cinderella Story: After earning a musical theater degree from the University of Northern Colorado, the 6' 3" actor found an agent via a senior showcase and headed to New York. Jesse's first job took him halfway around the world as understudy to the Prince in an Asian tour of Cinderella starring Lea Salonga. “She’s a sweetheart,” he says of the Tony-winning star, “one of the most well-spoken, professional ladies I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.” In a happy real-life plot twist, he fell in love with Salonga’s understudy, Stefanie O’Connell, and they’re still a couple two and a half years later. “With two actors, you understand that if you’re lucky enough to be working, you can’t always be together,” he says, explaining that O’Connell is currently on the road in Oklahoma! “It’s about finding a balance between work and keeping the relationship happy. Things are good so far, knock on wood.”
Oh, What a Part: Returning from a tour that took him to the Philippines, China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore, Jesse got his Equity card in a Portland production of Grey Gardens and, after a road trip with his parents (“we’re an RV family”), joined the national tour of Jersey Boys in January 2010 as Four Seasons mastermind Bob Gaudio. Although Gaudio himself usually signs off on every actor who plays the role, he wasn’t at Jesse’s audition. “Personally, I’m glad, because I might have had a completely different audition if he had been in the room,” the young actor admits, adding that he’s excited about meeting the composer during the forthcoming fifth anniversary celebration of Jersey Boys. What makes the role special? “So much!” he says. “Bob starts out as a business-smart but naive 17-year-old and goes on a great, great journey over the course of the show. I’m so blessed to get to do this eight times a week.”
Changing Seasons: When Jesse got a “we need to talk to you” call from his agents in August, he says with a laugh, “I thought I was in trouble.” On the contrary, he’d been tapped for the Broadway production of Jersey Boys, arriving just in time to be featured in the show’s splashy new TV ads and film footage. “When the phone call came, I was at the Great Sand Cave in Kentucky, where Floyd Collins [the subject of Adam Guettel’s 1996 musical] was trapped, so that place will always have significance for me.” Arriving in New York in September, he bonded right way with continuing cast members Jarrod Spector (Frankie Valli), Dominic Nolfi (Tommy DeVito) and Matt Bogart (Nick Massi). “Each set of Seasons finds its own niche,” he says, “and I feel like the four of us gelled quickly. But it’s never set—you’re always learning and discovering new things, which keeps the show exciting.”
Working His Way Back to Broadway: Asked about his first performance at the August Wilson Theatre, Jesse notes that eight months on the road helped take the pressure off. “I was fortunate enough to have done the show 250 times, so it wasn’t as much ‘deer in the headlights’ as my first performance in Detroit,” he says. At the same time, he was aware of the significance of making his Main Stem debut—in a leading role, no less—three years out of college. “So many of my fellow cast members told me, ‘Ryan, you only do this once in your life, so take your time and enjoy it.’ I keep reminding myself of that. And with a show that’s as good as this, you know people are going to like it, so you just need to do your job and have fun. That’s what I’m doing, and I’m having a great, great time.”