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The actor on reprising his role as Lonny in Rock of Ages
Mitchell Jarvis credits Shakespeare with inspiring him to revisit his best-known stage role, Lonny, the cheeky narrator of Rock of Ages for the show's 10th anniversary run at New World Stages. While there's seemingly more of Bon Jovi than the Bard in the jukebox musical comedy, which uses a slew of '80s hits to tell a jokey rags-to-rockers tale on the L.A. music scene, Jarvis sees Lonny as akin to a Shakespearean fool, which is why he's so much fun to play -- even the third time around.
Jarvis first donned Lonny's leather gloves, feathered mullet and mischievous attitude in 2008 when Rock of Ages made its NYC debut at New World Stages, and he stayed with the production when it transferred to Broadway the following year. During the show's six-year run, he also played other parts, notably villainous vocalist Stacee Jaxx. But for this special encore engagement he was excited to come full circle by resurrecting Lonny in the same theatre where he originated the role a little over a decade ago.
"The thrill about this guy for me is that there are no rules to him," says Jarvis, who cites Jack Black, former Van Halen front man David Lee Roth and the late Chris Farley as influencing his characterization. "I see Lonny as a very traditional clown, a court jester sort of figure, sort of Puckish and a lot like all of Shakespeare's fool characters. He exists inside the world and outside of it from the vantage point of the modern day. He can be tongue-in-cheek for the audience so you don't take the aggressive nature of the era too seriously." That's helpful for a show that's overflowing with broad stereotypes such as the young dreamer, his waitress sweetheart, a family of evil German developers and a misogynistic rock star. Lonny sets and steers the tone throughout as he breaks the fourth wall and comments on the outlandish proceedings with a wink and an impish grin.
To date, Jarvis estimates that he's played Lonny more than 1,000 times, but he hasn't tired of him yet. "I find the maintenance of long-running theatre to be one of the great acting challenges," Jarvis says. "I try to actively maintain its integrity by keeping it interesting for myself. I'll find things in the show -- some new choice will kind of kick in -- and I'll be mad at myself that it took me that long to come to that conclusion. In my mind, none of the past performances matter anymore. I can finally do it right. That's the attitude to take doing long-running shows. There's no end in sight so you'd better keep trying every day to make it a little bit better."
While Jarvis' résumé is filled with over-the-top characters like Lonny -- Feste in Twelfth Night, Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher -- he played against type for his last Broadway gig in Gettin' the Band Back Together, about a bunch of middle-aged guys who reunite their high school rock group. Even though there was thematic overlap with Rock of Ages, Jarvis played the straight man for the first time since college.
"I got to try a different character, a different kind of approach in a show with an oddly similar kind of tone," he says. "I got a lot out of it. My experience playing the clown for so long helped me take on the challenges of setting up other people to do that."
Now he's back getting the laughs, but he admits that slipping into Lonny isn't as easy as it used to be. "I created it when I was 29 and stupid," he says chuckling. "Suddenly I'm 40 and trying to do it again. It's more fun than ever, but I do have to do a warm-up!"
Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications, and blogs at CareyPurcell.com.
Top image: Mitchell Jarvis and Matt Ban in Rock of Ages. Photos by Matthew Murphy.