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Volume 15, Issue 11  | February 7, 2023Subscribe

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The wait is over: No Square Theatre presents Waiting in the Wings by writer and performer Jeffrey A. Johns

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

Back in 2009, actor and playwright Jeffrey A. Johns found himself playing an unlikely role. “I accidentally got cast in a show called Naked Boys Singing,” said Johns, who until that time had acted in mostly G-rated productions. The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Peter Pan and everything Disney was Johns’ jam. He always longed to be a cartoon character. His gig before being cast as a naked maid was playing Ernie in Sesame Street Live and Norm the Number Gnome in Dragon Tales Live. But here he was, suddenly performing naked in Vegas.

“I was doing [another] show in Las Vegas, and we went to a club which I’d never been to before because I’m not interested in clubs,” said Johns. “There were go-go boys and I’m like, ‘Oh, their technique is terrible!’ My friend says, ‘That’s not what people are looking for.’ And I’m like, ‘If I was doing that, I’d swing around that pole in tap shoes like Gene Kelly.’” It was enough to earn Johns the part. 

It was also a funny idea. What if a wholesome Broadway actor accidentally got cast as a stripper? “That’s how the idea of [Waiting in the Wings] came about,” said Johns. “A mix-up between a theater person and a stripper [who share the same name], each getting sent to the wrong show.” 

Until then, Johns had been an actor, singer and dancer – not a writer. But after Naked Boys Singing, he’d proven he was eager to try new things. So, he tried his hand at writing a feature film screenplay. “It’s not bad,” one of his more critical friends told him. “Then I knew I was really onto something,” Johns said. 

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Jeffrey A. Johns, writer and star of “Waiting in the Wings: The Musical,” now playing on the No Square Theatre stage the next two weekends

Waiting in the Wings: The Musical came out in 2014. Johns wrote, created and produced the film and also starred as Anthony, the Broadway theater actor accidentally cast as a stripper. The film also featured several well-known older stars like Lee Meriwether, Shirley Jones, Sally Struthers, Cindy Williams, Bunny Levine, Chita Rivera and Ed Asner. 

“I’m really big about bringing in actors of all different ages,” said John. “I had Carole Cook who just passed away this week. She was 96 when she was in my film. Ed Asner, Chita Rivera, Lee Meriwether, Shirley Jones – they were all in their 80s. Yes, sex and youth sell. But these icons and legends bring so much to the table and we forget about that. I always ask them, ‘How do you do it? You’re 87 years old and still out here performing.’ They just don’t stop. That’s part of the message of this show – don’t stop. If anyone tells you you’re too old and you can’t do it anymore, figure out how to prove them wrong and keep going.”

The same advice applies to trying something new. “I had no idea what I was doing,” said Johns. “I’d never written a movie. I’d never written a script. I had certainly never produced a movie. But I love the theater and it was a film about theater people. I brought in the right people to make it into a film and it was released. It did really well. People loved it and then we made the sequel, Still Waiting in the Wings.”

The sequel was finished and began debuting in film festivals. But almost five years ago, a fire broke out in Johns’ rental home, destroying everything including the master copies of the film and all the costumes. 

“I had kept every costume because I always wanted to make another film,” said Johns, who was uninsured at the time. “Of course, all that burned and I realized I couldn’t make another movie at that point. There’s a lot of money required up front. It was all ugly. But everyone said I should make a stage show. It was therapeutic. I was revisiting all these characters who brought me joy and [I was able to] bring them [back] to life.”

In 2021, the Rose Center Theater in Westminster picked up the stage production. This month it will run for two weekends at No Square Theatre before it heads to New York to open off-Broadway on April 30. For Johns, this feels like a full-circle moment.

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But the production hasn’t come without its challenges. Assembling a cast of strong singers and dancers who are also willing to bare some skin isn’t easy in community theater. But seasoned No Square director Ella Wyatt was up to the task. “We didn’t lock in some of the strippers until a few weeks ago because there’s a bit of nudity,” Wyatt said. “You know, just butts. But they have to be good dancers. There’s a lot required, so it was hard to find the right people. But we did!” 

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(L-R) Jeremiah Hein, Jeffrey Johns, Ray Tezanos and Cody Ludwig play the role of strippers in “Waiting in the Wings,” now playing on the No Square Theatre stage

No Square audiences will be familiar with several returning cast members and treated to some new talent. Eric Thomas Anderson, a regular on the No Square stage, plays drag queen Kelsey. Wearing a gown, he says, is no problem. It’s the heels he’s worried about. “I’ve been in a dress before,” he said. “But heels are no fun. They were easier than I thought for the first few hours, but then I walked up some stairs afterward and discovered muscles I never knew I had.” 

Zach Fogel plays Tony, the stripper who’s confused for Anthony (played by Johns). A natural for the role, Fogel played football for Claremont McKenna College (CMC) while also pursuing his dreams on stage and in academics. As he told the CMC News in 2018, “An actor is good as long as everyone wants them. A football player is good as long as his body lets him compete. But an academic is good as long as he wants to be.” This month, No Square Theatre wanted Fogel for his acting chops.

“I like how Tony is like a fish out of water in his theater role,” said Fogel. “I’ve felt that way at times in my life. I was a college football player, but I did theater growing up. Sometimes I’ve been that guy in the room who’s a little out of place. The role resonated a bit in that way.”

Demmi Ross, who plays the role of Rita, is new to No Square but a seasoned actor, singer, dancer and choreographer. She brings all those components to Rita’s larger-than-life character. “Rita is the one that gets the ball rolling in the storyline and the glue that holds it together,” said Ross. “Without her mischievous plans – she’s always planning something – the story wouldn’t happen.” 

What Ross enjoys most is inhabiting a character who hasn’t existed in fiction before now, rather than repurposing an old role. But if Rita has a fictional counterpart, Ross said, it might be Glinda from The Wizard of Oz

“I get to take ideas from the world around me and make Rita unique in my own form, while also remembering her Glinda side and taking Jeffrey’s notes,” Ross said. “This is a passion project for Jeffrey, so being able to create this role from scratch, while collaborating with this amazing creative team, is emotional. The ideas I get from them allow us to add layer after layer, creating this brand new, beautiful thing.” Ross said that was the advantage of recreating a show out of the ashes of the lost film – what has emerged is stronger and better than before, with more nuance and emotional complexity. 

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Demmi Ross is an actor, dancer, singer and choreographer. She brings all these talents to her role as Rita in “Waiting in the Wings.”

For a show about strippers – including some innuendo and double entendre – the overall story is relatively wholesome, Wyatt said. “The character that Jeffrey plays is very much him, very positive and sweet. It’s just aiming to be fun.” While there are no age restrictions imposed, Wyatt recommends a 13 and over audience. 

“My big thing with this show is it’s not politically driven,” said Johns. “We have enough divides. This show is fun, it’s silly and hopefully people walk out of the theater wanting to tap dance. It’s a very old-school joyous show with a new-age flair. It’s not going to change the world, but maybe it’ll make people feel happy. That’s the goal.” 

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Writer Jeffrey Johns and Director Ella Wyatt in “Waiting in the Wings,” now playing on the No Square Theatre stage

For Johns, though, the production accomplished something more profound. A lesson about loss. About how to lose everything and get up again. “[For me, this musical was about] figuring out how to go on when you’re down. You can’t just live there. Give yourself a day of sorrow, but then figure out how you’re going to get out of this. Seeing it on stage, for me, [brings] so much more joy than I ever could have imagined,” said Johns. “The fire was devastating. But it led to something bigger because I’m a theater guy. I’m not a movie guy. I loved making a movie about theater because people could see it anywhere in the world. But there’s something about live theater that I’ll always love and that I’ll always return to.”

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(L-R) Jeremiah Hein, Jeffrey Johns, Ray Tezanos and Cody Ludwig.
Catch “Waiting in the Wings” on the No Square Theatre stage before it moves to New York this April. Now playing the next two weekends.

Waiting in the Wings appears on stage on January 20-22 and January 27-29. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are on sale for $35. Talkback discussions with the writer, director and members of the cast will be held after each Saturday performance. For tickets and additional information, visit the No Square Theatre website by clicking here.

No Square Theatre is located in the American Legion Hall at 384 Legion St., Laguna Beach.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

Tom Johnson, Publisher - Tom@StuNewsLaguna.com

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Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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