Virginia Stage Company proudly kicks off it’s 41st season with the Tony Award-winning musical Guys and Dolls, September 18 through October 6 at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk.
Get ready to be transported to the New York of yesteryear. Filled with great dance numbers and amazing songs, the story is set in the prohibition era of New York city, where Nathan Detroit makes a bet of a lifetime with Sky Masterson. Filled with plot twists and colorful characters; one of them is Nicely-Nicely, played by James T. Lane.
Yiorgo: James, where are you from originally and what made you fall in love with music and what drew you to musical theatre?
James T. Lane: I am from Philadelphia. My mother got me into William Meredith Elementary School and they had a desegregated performing arts program. Cheril Shepard, my dance teacher, was great. I did my plié and I was hooked. I grew up in the projects and it was a real kind of relief to go into a dance class. It was discipline, caring, maintaining a good appearance and I could move. For this little chubby kid at seven, it was like heaven. Also I had a set of godparents, not in the traditional sense, they were Gene and Heather Remoff, a white family in our neighborhood and with my mother’s blessing, they included me in their lives, and opened up a world I didn’t know existed. They paid for my first dance lesson outside of school. My mother is the strength, my grandmother is the spiritual and my godmother is the intellectual. I got it three fold with that training.
Y: You had quite a journey to go from Philly to New York. Tell us about it.
JTL: Oh, that’s a long story. I did the musical Fame European Tour and then we came back to the states and did the Fame National Tour. While on the National Tour, I tore my Achilies tendon. It was the worst thing and the best thing that ever happen to me because at the age of 22, I was just beginning to come into my prime for dancing and I now had this injury. To be completely honest, my uncles were drug addicts and alcoholics and I knew that was not going to happen to me. But I decided to try drugs and drinking for the first time and it took my whole life. Within three months, I was not paying my rent, I was down and out. For the next four and a half years, I was arrested, I was unhirable, I was a mess. I had chipped a tooth and I walked around for two years with it chipped. Part of our profession is about appearance and that shows you where I was mentally and physically at that time.
When I got to New York the first time, it was right after September 11 was happening. The world was falling apart and I was hiding. I had my addiction and while people were running and helping, I was hiding, getting high and drinking. And then a strange thing happened.
While everyone else was not getting hired, I was hired for the National Tour of Cinderella with Eartha Kitt, I got the first National Lion King Tour. You could not tell me I had a problem because I was getting hired. The thing about addictionion is it loves to keep you in it. And I was so far in it that it gave me fuel to keep on going in it. So for the next two years I thought I could handle it because I was hireable, but the two years after that it dismentalled my life. At the end of it I was living in my mother’s basement like I was in high school doing everything I could to make money, stealing, everything. The last thing to go was my talent. I could always sing and dance. And that’s when I said I can’t self destruct anymore. I got myself together and as of November 16, 2004, I have been sober now for 15 years.
So while I was back in Philly I was in Aida and dancing for my life. Then I did Finigans Rainbow. Meanwhile, I had lost my union status and I was told that I could not get in to the Equity Membership Program because I was a member before and it was for new candidates.
I could only get in if I was offered an Equity contract. So I said I guess I have to be offered another Equity contract. A week later I see an open call for A Chorus Line on Broadway. I had done A Chorus Line in high school and regional theatre so I knew Richie Walters, the African-American character in the play, like the back of my hand. I get to the casting call in New York and I found out that it was an open call for the Hispanic characters. I was crushed. My friend Natalie Cortez who was also there said, “James, stay. What are they going to do throw you out?” I stayed and from that open call I got Richie for the revival of A Chorus Line and my Equity card.
Y: What was the turning point in your career, that moment you knew, this is what I am meant to do?
JTL: It happened when I was a little kid, 10 years old. I was sitting in row D at The Forest Theatre watching The Phantom of the Opera National Tour and when that chandelier fell down I let out a huge scream and I saw magic on that stage and I thought that this is what I have to do. Also I was in a school play of Rumpelstiltskin and as I was leaving the stage, I fell down the stairs. The audience laughed and hollard and I said, I like that. Those are two major moments that I knew this is what I wanted to do.
Y: What has been a wow, pinch me moment for you?
JTL: The most recent was performing on the 2019 Tony Awards playing Paul in Kiss Me Kate and we got to do my number Too Darn Hot for the Tony Awards and to be leading the charge with that musical on the biggest of all stages in the world, on the biggest of days in the theatre community was like wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. It will be hard to top that moment in my life.
Y: What drew you to Guys and Dolls? Tell us about what the play is about, your part and why should people come see this play?
JTL: When my agent mentioned the part of Nicely-Nicely, I said oh he is the one that sings ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.’ Now talk about not being typecast. He is usually not a black guy and he is usually a guy of a portly stature for the comedy of it. The song ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’ lends itself to a kind of a church Revival type song, so it is actually quite appropriate with who I am. I accepted the part and we are having a lot of fun with it. Nicely-Nicely, the name says it all. And because of who I am, I like to think of him that he came from Harlem by way of North Carolina. This world that we are creating with our Guys and Dolls, is set in the late ’20s, early ’30s when Burlesque is ending and Vaudeville is really taking off so the colors are really true to that time period. Our show is also closer to the book. It is the Guys and Dolls of the words and songs that you know and love, but we are more true to the book and the stories Damon Runyon wrote.
Y: Why should people come see this play?
JTL: The play is about relationships, love, new love, love 14 years in the making, and these translate in any time period. It’s timeless. So come on and see it.
For ticket prices, dates and times go to www.vastage.org/guysanddolls
Yiorgo is a Hampton Roads arts, entertainment and sports writer. A stage, TV and movie actor, he is also an educator, motivational speaker, writer, storyteller and columnist.