James Monroe Iglehart has sailed back into the Bay Area to play Jim, the fugitive slave who befriends Huck Finn, in "Big River" at TheatreWorks. Long a company favorite, the Hayward native originated the role of Bobby, the janitor waiting for stardom, in "Memphis," which got its start at TheatreWorks before taking Broadway by storm.
After three years performing on Broadway with that Tony-winning musical, Iglehart has returned to his old stomping grounds. Famed for his powerhouse baritone, the 38-year-old actor/singer recently made time for an email interview about his time on the Great White Way, his passion for musical theater and why TheatreWorks still feels like home to him. The rollicking musical based on Mark Twain's epic adventure runs through Dec. 30. at Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre.
Q When did you first fall in love with the theater?
A When I was very young. I got to see my first show when I was about 6 or 7. That show was "The Wiz," and I've loved musical theater ever since.
Q Tell me about your first experience with TheatreWorks. What do you love about working there?
A My first experience with TheatreWorks was the show "Ragtime," and I had the best time. The show itself is just amazing, but we had the best cast as well. It was just a really wonderful production! I made lifelong friends in that show! As far as TheatreWorks goes, I love the fact that the company is so professional but still has a family atmosphere about it. Also, it's where I really found my stride, so it has a very special place in my heart. I just love working there.
Q Do you ever miss "Memphis?"
A Yes and no. I love "Memphis" and always will. I will miss my friends and family that I made in that show. Yes, I was sad when we got our closing notice, but I also had a peace about it. I was with the show off and on for eight years, and we did everything we could do in that show, four Tonys, the filming of our show shown in movie theaters, "Great Performances" on PBS and a DVD. We also were on every television and radio show you can imagine! I got to live out my dream with "Memphis," including being an original cast member on a real Broadway soundtrack. So, yes, I miss the show, but I was ready to move on as well. "Memphis" will always be No. 1 in my heart.
Q What was it like performing on Broadway?
A The greatest and hardest job I have ever had. Also the most rewarding! I learned so much about myself as far as confidence, endurance and perseverance. I loved it and can't wait to go back.
Q Why did you want to come home to TheatreWorks for "Big River?"
A First and foremost to be close to my wife. She got a great job out here, and she had just sacrificed two years of her life to be with me in New York City living my dream. It was the least I could do to come back and be a part of hers. And I love TheatreWorks! It's my home, it's where I really found myself and was able to do so many different styles of musicals. I also just love the people -- they are my friends. And who doesn't want to work with friends?
Q What appeals to you about "Big River?"
A I love the music. I have loved it since I first heard it, but also now at 38 years old, I feel I'm mature enough to truly understand the character of Jim so much more now. It's fun to be able to express that now.
Q What's next for you?
A Well, I'm working on my own show and (knock on wood) I was involved in a new Disney musical called "Aladdin." I hope that can happen in the near future, but right now I'm focused on my own project about marriage. It should be fun and funny ... at least that's the plan.
Music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman, based on the novel by Mark Twain
Through: Dec. 30
Where: TheatreWorks, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Tickets: $23-$73, 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org