From Spidey to Superstar

Theatre alumnus Justin Sargent ’08, who starred in the Broadway production of Spider-Man, will perform in NBC’s live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar on April 1

By Jenna Marina Lee

UCF theatre alumnus Justin Sargent ’08 is on a first-name basis with Academy Award, Golden Globe, Grammy and Tony Award winner John Legend thanks to his role in Jesus Christ Superstar, set to air live April 1 on NBC at 8 p.m.

As a priest in the ensemble and the understudy to Legend, who is playing Jesus, Sargent has spent the past six weeks rehearsing and shaping the network’s latest concert special, which also features Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper.

Sargent, from Trinity, Florida, has played the lead roles in Broadway productions of Rock of Ages and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, so he is no stranger to performing on a big stage. But the magnitude of this one is starting to hit him.

“Even though there’s all these amazing celebrities and people popping in and out of rehearsals, the scale of it never hit me until I saw an interview that John was doing and he was talking about it,” Sargent said, “and I realized, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be seen by millions of people. This is going to be filmed live. How are we going to do this?!”

Sargent shared details from rehearsals, what it feels like to have super powers and why Cooper yelling in his face for two straight hours was one of the best moments of his life.

Q: How did you get your first big break into the industry?
“After college, I worked in the theme parks and at a singing-waiter Italian restaurant in Fashion Square Mall. A new Spider-Man musical was going to Broadway and an open-call audition was going to be held in Orlando. I was the 180th person to audition. U2 wrote the music for the show, so when the casting directors asked what I was singing, I said, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2, and they said, ‘Out of 180 people, you’re the first person to sing a U2 song, so already you’re off to a great start!’ My audition went really well, so I got a call back. Eventually, I was asked to travel to New York to audition for the creative team. They asked if I had plans of moving to the city, and when I said eventually, they said I should do it sooner than later.

“So six months later I moved to New York. I emailed the casting directors from Telsey + Company that I had met in Orlando. They brought me in for Rock of Ages, and about nine months after I moved to the city I was doing my first Broadway show.”

Q: After your stint on Rock of Ages you did end up taking over the role of Spider-Man. What’s it like to be a superhero?
“I was a huge comic book fan and a huge fan of Spider-Man when I was a kid. I remember [during the play] being in the costume every night and looking down at my hands with the red-and-black webbed gloves and thinking, ‘This is crazy, I’m Spider-Man. I’m being hooked up to wires and flying around, this is the best!’ It was amazing.”

Q: What’s been the coolest moment for you in working with the celebrity cast of Jesus Christ Superstar?
“When I was 14 years old, my mother took me to see Alice Cooper on his tour. We sat in the second row of Ruth Eckerd Hall (Clearwater, Florida). Alice Cooper did his whole show in front of us – I could reach out and touch him if I wanted to. At the end of the show, they roll out this giant guillotine and ‘decapitate’ him, and his bass player picks up his head and drinks blood out of it and spits it all over my mom and I. I was hooked as soon as it happened. I was like, ‘Oh. My. God. That was the most amazing thing in the world!’ He came to our rehearsal one day, and he watched us do a run-through of the show. I was singing the Jesus role, and he came up to me afterward and gave me a big hug. He was very complimentary and very kind, and I got to tell him that story.

“There’s a part of our show when Jesus is brought in front of King Herod, and he does this big flashy number in front of Jesus and taunts him quite a lot. So after I told him my story, for about two hours, I was just on my knees pretending to be Jesus while Alice Cooper screamed in my face. And it was one of the most surreal, amazing experiences. I’ll never forget it.”

Q: NBC has produced several of these throwback live -productions. Why do you think they are so popular?
“I really believe that entertainment, in general, is cyclical. Back in the earlier part of the 20th century, the movie-musical was a huge part of the entertainment industry. Going all the way back to Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers and then of course with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and all these musical performers, these things were part of our industry from the start. And it’s been a long time since that’s been represented in pop culture. NBC took a risk with Sound of Music (2013) being the first one that was done on TV in 56 years, and it really hit a chord with people. This is so nostalgic. I think it was one of those things that people realized, ‘Oh yeah, this is a thing! This is something that we all enjoy!’”

Q: When you look back on your involvement with Jesus Christ Superstar, how do you think you’ll feel about the experience?
“I am having the time of my life. I’ve starred in Broadway shows. I’ve done work that I’m proud of. I’ve done work that I’ve been challenged by and that I’ve enjoyed. But nothing has felt quite like this. This means a lot to me. This musical, this score, this rock album is something that’s been in my life since I was a child. My parents introduced me to this when I was young, so it feels like home to me. To be part of the process that creates this thing for a new generation is so extremely special, and I honestly cannot believe I’m getting to do this. Just going to rehearsal every single day is exhausting and challenging for so many reasons, but it never ever, ever, ever feels like work.”

Q: How did your education at UCF help prepare you for a career in theatre?
“The Bachelor of Fine Arts track in musical theatre at UCF accepts a certain number of students every year, so it’s a very hands-on program. You become very involved with your professors and your fellow students. Having that personal touch be my introduction to the art form was a pretty unique experience. It was wonderful and helped shape the way I look at what I do. I try to look at everything as if it’s a cohesive family unit. Each project has its own family and we all have to work with each other and for each other in order to make things happen. I think that’s one of the great things about going to a program like UCF. It’s so personal.”

UCF Alumna Bright As Broadway

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By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (Nov. 16, 2016) – Three weeks after earning her degree a semester early in December 2014, Abby Jaros sat on her bed alongside her parents in a packed up apartment.

All at once, Jaros realized the leap she was about to take in moving to New York City to pursue a career in theater. She questioned herself: Is this really what I should do?

“My dad said, ‘You know what Abby? If not you, who?’” Jaros recalled. “And that is a confidence that I have to take with me everywhere that I go.”

Since then, Jaros has appeared in several regional theater productions and is fresh off her first national tour for Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. The tour spanned nine months and included a trip to Japan.

Recently, she returned to UCF’s School of Performing Arts to conduct an informational workshop with current students. As someone who has navigated the ins and outs of making it in the city on her own, Jaros wanted to provide some guidance to the school that became like a family to her.

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Abby Jaros’ workshop at UCF School of Performing Arts

“From the second I stepped foot on this campus, it felt like home. The people here were so welcoming,” she said. “In life, you really have to thank the people who put themselves out there for you. And this was the only school that did. I am forever thankful to people who go out on a limb for me. I’m thankful to represent UCF.”

Jaros grew up as a dancer. She always viewed it as a hobby until she started musical theater in high school as a creative outlet.

She intended to study marine biology in college. Her parents were supportive of her passion for theater, but also erred on the side of practicality when it came to her future career path.

That all changed when Jaros attended Broadway Theater Project, a three-week intensive learning experience under the direction of Broadway directors, choreographers, casting directors and producers.

Before her final showcase of the Project, with her parents sitting in the audience, Jaros was given the Gregory Hines Scholarship, presented to students who show artistic merit. The scholarship offers training and performance opportunities and encourages pre-professional level students to continue with their studies with on-stage performing experience.

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AbbyJaros.com/Dancers Of New York

She’ll never forget the date, Aug. 1, 2010, when her parents encouraged her to follow her dreams.

“They said they were 100 percent behind me because of getting the scholarship that day,” she said. “They said, ‘We will accompany you to any audition you want to go to. Whatever you want, we will do whatever it takes.’”

Since moving to New York City, the musical theater alumna is constantly on the move. She has been seen for commercial work, television and film roles and of course, theater work.

She is helping a fellow UCF alumnus work on his script for a feature film. She has been featured on the Dancers of New York blog and had a personal project video go viral on YouTube.

When her friends invited her on a weekend getaway to Disney this fall, she booked her trip with some extra days set aside to visit UCF.

“I wanted to come and see my alma mater and really give back because they gave me so much. I think that’s the most important thing – remembering your roots and where you came from,” she said. “A lot of alums from here help me up in New York. It’s such a great community.”

Jaros covered the basics – who photographs good headshots, social media tricks to finding an affordable place to live and where to attend worthwhile classes.

She also offered up words of encouragement, motivating the students to put themselves out there and connect with people.

When she recounted her story of the insecurity she felt before making the leap to New York, senior Amanda Hornberger wiped away tears from her seat in the crowd. Hornberger said it was comforting and helpful to learn from someone who understands the journey that she herself is trying to pursue.

“What I loved that she kept saying was: ‘Find your people. We are a community.’ That’s why I do theater and performing to begin with because I found a community of people here,” Hornberger said. “There is something special about people in the arts. They understand how to be there for each other.”

UCF Alumnus Touring with Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”

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(Photo courtesy of Brent Wakelin)

By Kimberly Moy
BroadwayWorld.com

This week, the national tour of NETwork presents Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” comes to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. With the timeless story and well-known tunes, “Beauty and the Beast” should be a fun show to complement our Disney-obsessed city. Brent Wakelin, ’10, is a Central Florida native and UCF graduate who is currently on tour in the ensemble with this production. Brent took a few moments between shows to answer a few of our questions.

Hi Brent. In just a few days you’ll be back in Orlando. For those who don’t know, tell us about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get your start in musical theater?

I grew up in Orange City, Fla., and did my very first play at Shoestring Theatre in Lake Hellen when I was 8 years old. I was bitten by the acting bug as soon as I stepped on stage for the audition. That was also the year I started singing with the Stetson University Children’s Choir in DeLand. From there, I kept doing shows with Shoestring and with Storybook Theatre and Sands Theatre in DeLand. In high school, I was a proud member of DeLand High’s Thespian Troupe #3030, and then went on to earn my BFA in musical theatre from UCF. Go Knights!

You graduated from UCF with a degree in musical theater and did a few roles locally including the theme parks. How did UCF and the Orlando theater scene prepare you for becoming a professional actor?

UCF taught me a lot about what to expect in the real world, but the best education often comes from going out and doing it. During my senior year at UCF, I was cast as a singer in the “High School Musical 3” show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and as William Barfée in Mad Cow’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” These were my first professional gigs and they taught me a lot about how the business worked. I auditioned a lot at Disney during my time at UCF which really prepared me for the audition scene in NYC where I booked my first tour as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Tell us a little about the audition for “Beauty and the Beast.” What was it like when you got the call that you got the role?

It’s actually a funny story. I auditioned for BATB at least three times after I moved to NYC and never got a callback, so I had made peace with the fact that BATB just wasn’t the show for me. It wasn’t until this last time when I went to a call for the national tour of “Elf” that they called me back for BATB. I was so surprised, but, when I stepped into that callback, it just felt like it was meant to be, and it was! When I got the call to play the Bookseller, I was so happy because I already knew that my Scarecrow from the “Oz” tour (Patrick Pevehouse) had been cast as Lumiere, and a fellow UCF alum (Jake Bridges, who has since left tour) was cast as LeFou. I couldn’t wait to start!

I saw “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway when it first opened. In fact, it was the first Broadway show I ever saw. How does this tour compare to the Disney animated film or any stage versions that you’ve seen?

The only time I’d seen BATB on stage before was the dearly departed Seaside Music Theatre’s production starring Michelle Knight (personal idol turned friend) as Belle. This version is extremely unique because it was re-designed by the original Broadway creative team for NETworks Productions. The team told us in rehearsals that they approached the show a second time with an emphasis of transparency and being able to see through the exterior to someone’s heart. This is reflected through many visual aspects of the show, especially the stained glass effect used during the castle scenes which I think is especially beautiful.

Why do you think people love this show so much?

I think that people love this show for the same reason I love it: BATB was Disney’s first time creating a princess who was extremely confident, assertive and brave. Belle is a head-strong beauty who isn’t afraid to fight for the people she loves or the things she believes in which is so important for everyone, especially kids to see. In the words of Emma Watson, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and soon-to-be Belle, “Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.”

Do you have a favorite scene in this production that audiences should be looking out for?

My favorite line from the show comes from the library scene when Belle is reading to the Beast. She says something that all of us can relate to, which is why this show is so accessible for so many people: “In the town where I come from, the people think I’m odd. So I know how it feels to be… different. And I know how lonely that can be.”

With live theater every performance must be a new adventure. Do you have any funny on-stage moments that you can share?

And, some I can’t share! I understudy Cogsworth and Maurice in the show. When I went on for Maurice the first time, our makeup supervisor wasn’t prepared for how sweaty I can get on stage and used toupee tape to attach my bushy white eyebrows because that’s all that other actors usually need. Well, by the time I got into the Beast’s castle, I was a sweaty mess and my left eyebrow kept falling off. After trying to re-attach it several times, I finally just pulled the other one off and stuck them both in my pocket. Needless to say, we made sure to use spirit gum for every performance after that!

What are some of your favorite things about being on tour and what are some challenges with being on a national tour? How do you stay at the top of your game physically and vocally?

I love living in hotels because I don’t have to clean! However, it is hard to be away from my friends and family for such long periods of time. It’s also hard to stay healthy. There are 30 actors in this cast and, when you’re kept in such close quarters, it’s hard not to catch a castmate’s cold, but we all do a really good job of using hand sanitizer backstage and taking lots of Vitamin C the minute we feel a tickle in our throats.

Do you have anything that you bring with you throughout your travels that reminds you of home or that keeps you grounded?

My oldest niece, Kaylin, is 13 years younger than me and grew up with me around for most of her childhood. When I graduated high school and left for college, Kaylin (who was 5 at the time) gave me her favorite stuffed animal: a baby Simba (from the Lion King) that purrs. She said that she gave it to me so that I wouldn’t forget her, even though I only went to school 45 minutes from my home town. I have had it ever since and carry it with me when I tour.

Now that you’re “home,” what are some local places that you like to visit?

Pom Pom’s! Can’t wait to get a Thanksgiving sandwich and some kiwi-pear iced green tea! Gonna show some of my castmates around Disney too, thanks to my awesome friends who work there. :)

Speaking of local places, you probably noticed that we opened the beautiful Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Are you excited to perform here as part of its inaugural year?

I am SO excited! When I was growing up in the Orlando area, I would have to drive over to Tampa to see a lot of the bigger Broadway tours. Now that we have the Dr. Phillips Center, those big Broadway musicals can come right to our back yard! Orlando is already a hot-spot for world-class entertainment, and the new Dr. Phillips Center will only add to the amazing selection in Orlando.

Do you have any parting advice for kids who may want to pursue acting/musical theater?

I tell everyone I meet who wants to pursue theatre as a career that it’s not easy. There will be a lot of hard times and challenges along the way, but if this truly is your passion and you can’t think of anything else that would make you as happy, then go for it with all you’ve got. Never stop learning, never stop working hard and never stop dreaming.


“Beauty and the Beast” plays at the Dr. Phillips Center May 12-17. TICKETS & MORE INFO

This story appeared May 8 on broadwayworld.com. It has been edited for style. See original article.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Theatre alumna reprises Off-Broadway role she originated at Orlando theatre

Michelle Knight, '02, poses in front of her Snow White billboard in Times Square.
Michelle Knight, ’02, poses in front of her Snow White billboard in Times Square.
Michelle Knight, ’02 | Performer

Michelle Knight, ’02, stars as Snow White in the Off-Broadway production of “DISENCHANTED!” — a not-for-the-kiddies musical comedy that’s anything but Grimm. Forget the princesses you think you know. Fairy tales will never be the same! The show runs for a limited engagement Nov. 26 through Jan. 25 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s in New York City.

Knight originated the role of Snow White in “DISENCHANTED!” in 2011 at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, and reprised the role (for which she received a Daily Beast Best Actress award) at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival’s Goldman Theater, as well as the Peter Jay Sharp Theater and Don’t Tell Mama Cabaret Theater, both in New York City.

She’s performed on Broadway in “Jersey Boys,” as well as in the first national tour in Chicago and Las Vegas. Her other national tours include “Grease” and the 30th anniversary tour of “Annie.”

Knight is often a starring performer with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, including leads in “My Fair Lady,” “Carousel,” and “Guys and Dolls.” She can also be seen in “Finding Nemo, The Musical” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and with the Voices of Liberty at Disney’s Epcot.

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Visiting NYC during the holidays? Get tickets to see Michelle Knight in “DISENCHANTED!”