Jason Michael Evans may be a nice Jewish choir boy from St. Louis, but lately, he seems to be typecast as a villain.
Pittsburgh audiences may remember his turn as Gaston in last summer’s CLO production of “Beauty and the Beast,” or from other regional theater roles in which he played characters with a “darker side.”
“Maybe it’s because of my big bushy eyebrows, who knows? But that is what it has been for the last few years,” said Evans, speaking by phone from Schenectady, N.Y., where he was rehearsing for the national tour of “Anastasia,” opening at the Benedum Center on Tuesday, Oct. 16, and running through Oct. 21.
As he sinks his teeth into the role of Gleb in the musical adaptation of the story based in part on the 1997 animated film, Evans recognizes that this particular villain is complicated, as is the myth of Anastasia herself.
The legend around the life of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of imperial Russia, has intrigued writers for the last century. Although it was reported that Anastasia was murdered along with her family by the Bolshevik secret police in 1918, rumors circulated of her possible escape, with several women coming forward and claiming to be her in the years that followed.
While the character Evans plays in “Anastasia,” a young “up-and-coming Soviet officer,” has villainous attributes, his soul is divided.
“His backstory is his father was one of the guards who participated in the execution of the Romanov dynasty, so he feels a family duty to carry out what his father could not,” Evans explained. “So, if she is indeed Anastasia, it’s his job to go finish what his father started, to kill her. But he also has very strong feelings for her and is maybe a bit conflicted with the ideology of the current regime, and he doesn’t know whether or not it is the right thing to do.”
The role is a meaty one, and with its accompanying musical numbers is a chance for Evans to showcase the vocal skills that he developed as a high school student singing in the youth choir at Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis. Under the tutelage of a “magnificent choir teacher,” he recalled, teens at his congregation assembled a High Holiday choir which led youth services for more than 500 attendees.
“It was really a special thing to be a part of,” Evans said.
Several cantors at Shaare Emeth inspired him as well.
“I was always listening to these wonderful operatic voices, one of whom tutored me through my bar mitzvah training,” he said. “He was really someone to look up to, a voice that was jaw-dropping and fun to try to emulate myself on the bimah.”
Evans’ identity continued to be shaped by Judaism beyond the bimah, too. “All of my fondest memories from growing up had some connection to being Jewish,” he said. “Whether it was the Maccabi Games [for which he played baseball] or NFTY youth group, or Camp Sabra summer camp in the Lake of the Ozarks. My first job was at the JCC, and some of my friends whom I met at the JCC while in preschool, I still talk to almost every day.”
Evans is looking forward to heading to Pittsburgh next week and is eager for Steel City audiences to experience what he sees as a “stunning show” in “Anastasia.”
“The costumes, the projections, what they do with these screens — you feel like you are in the place they are projecting,” he said. “But first and foremost, it’s just the story and the music. It’s something anyone can connect to.”
Although the musical, with its book by Terrence McNally and score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, is based in part on the animated film, “it’s not just for kids,” Evans noted.
“It’s just the story of a really passionate young woman that is searching for her place in the world, searching for her family, and that’s something that anyone can connect to,” he said. “And the talent in this cast — there is not a weak spot in it. We adore this show, and that shows in the work on stage. It’s going to be a spectacle, that’s for sure.”
“Anastasia” is part of the 2018-2019 PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series, presented by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Broadway Across America. PJC