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Dancing at the Forefront of a Movement
By DOUG STRASSLER
Tuesday, June 20, 2017  •  
Tue Jun 20, 2017  •  
Building Character  •   0 comments Share This
"Was Tom Jones written to have one leg? No. But the story can still be told regardless of my disability."

How one-legged performer Evan Ruggiero is making history

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Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles

Almost three centuries after its publication, Henry Fielding's 1749 novel exploring "human nature," The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, continues to inspire. Although its best-known adaptation is the Oscar-winning 1963 movie, it has also served as the basis for three operas, two mini-series, a straight play, and now a raucous new rock musical called Bastard Jones running Off-Broadway at The Cell. But what really makes this incarnation of the classic story stand out is the actor portraying the title lothario: Evan Ruggiero is the first amputee to star in a musical in New York City.

A dance prodigy who was accepted into the prestigious New Jersey Tap Ensemble at age 10, Ruggiero lost his right leg due to a rare bone cancer while a sophomore at Montclair State University. Yet that didn't derail his performing ambitions. "Sure, doctors sometimes would say I'd never be able to dance again, or that I should try to find a new life goal," Ruggiero remembers. "But I remained persistent in my choices to strive for being on stage."

Bastard Jones arrives at a time when the theatre industry is, at long last, starting to shine a spotlight on differently abled actors. In some cases, like Cost of Living, currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I, the performers are playing characters that share their real-life disabilities. But in others, such as the recent revival of Spring Awakening -- which featured deaf performers as well as the first actress who uses a wheelchair to appear on Broadway -- the characters aren't written as differently abled. In fact, Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), the only NYC troupe dedicated to advancing actors and writers with disabilities, is currently mounting a revival of The Artificial Jungle in which the performers' disabilities are irrelevant.

The cast of
The cast of 'Bastard Jones'

"I really think the industry has improved," says Ruggiero, though he's quick to add that it has a ways to go. "Why does it need to be an able-bodied actor playing an actor with a disability when there are plenty of willing and working disabled actors that can do that job? On the flip side, I know most disabled actors' goals are to look past disability and to play parts that don't necessarily call for an actor with a disability. Was Tom Jones written to have one leg? No. But the story can still be told regardless of my disability."

Despite Ruggiero's dancing prowess -- which he displayed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show a few years back -- starring in Bastard Jones presents many physical challenges. "We have a two-level set, with a full set of stairs that I run up and down throughout the show," he says. "I'm dancing on a table, I'm involved in every fight in the show, and, as crazy as it all sounds, I love it!"

Bastard Jones director Marc Acito, who also authored the book and co-wrote the lyrics, had no qualms about casting Ruggiero. "Evan is a star," Acito says. "Sexy and charming, yet soulful and accessible, he has that rare ability that stars have to hold the stage, to carry a show while making the audience feel like an intimate friend. He is a remarkable talent separate from his disability, but also because of it."

While Ruggiero is keen to play all kinds of characters, disabled and not, he realizes that often, he needs to do some convincing. "I've gotten a feel from auditioning enough to read people's body language," he says. "Sometimes I can see them go through the thought process: Oh, you have one leg? No way can this guy dance. Next! I always walk into the room with as much confidence as possible to show that, just because I have one leg, it's not going to affect this audition at all. It may be a little modified for me, but I'm still going to give it my all. And I'm sure every disabled actor feels that way."

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Doug Strassler is a writer and critic based in New York City. He contributes regularly to TDF Stages.

Top image: Evan Ruggiero, center. Photos by Carol Rosegg.

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