For New York-based actor Nicholas Rodriguez, Washington has become like a second home. After playing in three productions in so many years at Arena Stage, Rodriguez, who is gay, says he experiences D.C. as more than a place to grow professionally. It’s also somewhere he forges new friendships and simply enjoys the city.
“I’m always happy to come back to D.C.,” says the strapping Latino actor who began his collaboration with Arena Stage in 2010 when he was cast as Fabrizio, the lovesick young Italian in Adam Geuttel’s dreamy musical “The Light in the Piazza.” The following season he wowed local audiences as cowboy Curly in Arena’s stellar production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” for which he won a Helen Hayes Award.
And now Rodriguez is back in town playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill in Arena’s take on Lerner and Loewe’s’ “My Fair Lady.” Set in Edwardian London, young dandy Freddy falls hard for Cockney flower girl turned lady, Eliza Doolittle (Manna Nichols); but sadly it’s an unrequited love. Eliza has her romantic sights set on self-absorbed phoneticist Professor Henry Higgins (Benedict Campbell), who on a bet vows to teach Eliza how to speak, walk and act like an aristocrat.
When Rodriguez was initially approached by Arena to do “My Fair Lady,” his manager advised him to consider carefully. He pointed out that Freddy is a much smaller role than what his client is typically offered. But Rodriguez knew instantly that he wanted the part. “I thought it might be my only chance to do this show. When else will I be cast to play a British gentleman? It was never something that I saw myself playing, but I love a good challenge.”
Since Rodriguez believed he wasn’t a slam dunk as Freddy type wise, he was extra keen to honor all facets of the character including Freddy’s posh accent, so he set to work with two dialect coaches. The gorgeous-voiced tenor was also eager to do justice to his character’s iconic song “On the Street Where You Live.”
“It’s a song that I’ve been singing on some level or another since I was 15, but never in the show,” says Rodriguez, a native Texan who holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees in vocal performance from the University of Texas at Austin. “Now is the first time I’m actually singing it with a British dialect and genuinely acting part. Beautiful songs can fall flat, so there’s no room for autopilot. It has to be acted and all the song’s questions must be answered.”
The other draw that repeatedly brings Rodrigues back to D.C., he says, is the ongoing prospect of working with Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director who has staged the three Arena musicals in which Rodriguez has appeared.
“She doesn’t tell actors what to do, but rather teaches us to find our own way,” he says. “Under Molly, Arena possesses both artistic integrity and equally important — resources. All of us leave here better artists.”
Rodriguez considers Arena’s non-traditionally cast production of “Oklahoma!” the highlight of his career to date. For him, playing Curly was a magical experience. “It was an emotionally charged time at Arena. Not just opening a show but it was also the christening of the new Mead Center for American Theater. A mediocre show was not an option.” He remains close with much of the multi-racial cast, especially talented D.C. favorite Eleasha Gamble who played Curly’s girlfriend Laurey.
Early in his career, Rodriguez garnered fame playing the third corner of a hot and heavy gay love triangle on ABC’s daytime drama “One Life to Live,” but he mostly works in theater. In addition to originating the role of Tarzan on Broadway, he has appeared off-Broadway and toured in numerous national tours of musicals and sung in concerts internationally. He also serves as artistic director of Broadway Dreams Foundation, a New York-based non-profit national performing arts education program that brings the very best in musical theater training to all parts of the country. (mybroadwaydreams.com)
Will there be more Arena productions in his future? Probably. But next up, Rodriguez returns to New York where he lives with his partner of almost 10 years. In January, he’s slated to be part of a Joni Mitchell tribute at Manhattan’s 54 Below.
“I’m always looking ahead,” Rodriguez says. “I’m always excited to encounter the next lesson that’s coming my way.”