There’s a new guy in town.
When Chad, the blue-suede-shoe-wearing roustabout who stars in the Good Company Players musical “All Shook Up,” pops up in a small Midwest 1950s town swiveling his hips and singing Elvis tunes, you can be sure he makes an impression.
Juan Danner, who plays Chad, made similar waves at GCP recently when he rolled into town. He landed a plum supporting role in “South Pacific” as the bespectacled Professor, one of the stir-crazy Navy seabees who sing “There’s Nothing Like a Dame.” I noticed him right away, writing in my review: “He brings a buoyant stage presence and great vocal chops to every scene he is in, even when in the background.”
Danner followed that role with the iconic Fagin in “Oliver!,” and now he’s starring in “All Shook Up,” in its opening weekend at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. (When you’re in back-to-back shows at GCP, for a time you’re essentially rehearsing and performing seven days a week, so it’s a major commitment.)
I caught up with the 27-year-old Danner to find out his story. He talked to me about his love of performing, stint in the U.S. Navy, marriage to longtime GCP performer Jason Danner and thoughts about playing an Elvis-like character.
Q: This is your third musical in a row for Good Company Players, and you’ve already been cast in “Shenandoah,” the show following “All Shook Up.” Did you sign on as an indentured servant for GCP?
A: (Laughs). No, I didn’t intend to do four in a row when I initially auditioned, but after getting to know Good Company Players and seeing how it provides an artistic outlet for all ages while performing at such a professional caliber, I knew I had to get as much performing experience with this company as I could. Not to mention legends like Audra McDonald have performed with this company, and I get the opportunity to do the same and learn from the same people who helped these stars rise to success! Not every community in the U.S. has as much theater as Fresno nor supports theater like this one does. It’s an honor and a great opportunity to perform with GCP and I’m going to do it as much as I can as long as I’m here in town.
Q: You don’t play Elvis in the show, but you certainly have Elvis-like qualities. Is it a challenge to put your stamp on such an iconic personality?
A: Yes. Elvis’ songs are so well-known and he iconically embodied his songs during his performances. I’m certainly no Elvis impersonator, but I believe Elvis’ music is so powerful that any individual can relate to it and share that relationship with an audience. That’s my goal as Chad, to not impersonate Elvis, but to truthfully share my relationship to his music through the eyes of Chad … well, eyes and hips, of course.
Q: Where’d you grow up?
A: I was born in Maryland, but I grew up in York, Pennsylvania. My mom was from the Dominican Republic, and my dad was from Honduras.
Q: You went to college, then to the Navy.
A: I went to New York University. I was a drama major there at the Tisch School of the Arts. After a preliminary audition I was placed in The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute to train and study the art of performing for two years. Most of my training was as an actor but I was very fortunate to have impeccable singing training and strong dance teachers during my first two years. In my junior year, I entered a musical theatre program at Strasberg where we learned the art of acting through song, and learned audition techniques. At the end of this program we collaborated with NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program and got the opportunity to perform never-before-seen 20-minute musicals.
Due to unforeseen financial hardship I had to take an extended leave of absence from school halfway through my junior year. I needed a job and money for school and I wanted to get out of Pennsylvania, so I joined the Navy. Although it was a very quick decision, I’m glad I did it. Joining the Navy was probably the smartest decision I’ve made so far. I learned discipline, how to work hard, and earned the benefits that can now help me pay for school.
Q: Were you able to find an outlet for your performing interests while in the Navy?
A: I was, surprisingly! I was upset after leaving school and kind of bitterly put performing aside, but I’m one of the lucky few, or unlucky depending on how you look at it, who has to perform to survive. I suppose that’s why I was drawn to various outlets in the Navy. I sang cadence for my boot camp division whenever we marched around the Recruit Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois. In late 2010 and early 2011, I was the lead vocalist and head of the performing unit at the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Pensacola, Florida, home of the Blue Angels. We mostly performed the national anthem at various ceremonies: retirement, commencement, change of command ceremonies. When I was stationed in San Diego I had several opportunities to do the same for my command on Naval Air Station North Island. My real job in the Navy was as an aviation electronic technician.
Q: You’re married to Jason Danner, a longtime GCP veteran, who’s also in the show. Tell us about how you met and why you took his last name, which is fairly uncommon for a man to do.
A: I met Jason in early 2012. At the time we were both dancing with the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus. Let’s just say love crept up on us. At first sight he was kind of … indifferent to me. Apparently I came off a little too confident at the auditions. (Laughs) He was the dance captain and ran the dance auditions and dance rehearsals. Time passed and a few well choreographed steps landed us as dance partners, and we fell for each other.
We got married September of 2013 and I decided to take his name for a few reasons. Primarily I wanted to show Jason I was serious about our commitment. Like you said, it hasn’t been common for men to change their name at marriage, so at that time I felt it made our marriage special, and it has. Another powerful reason for the name change was to close the book on my bachelor life and give me a clean slate with a new name for marriage. This was more for me than for Jason. It took a long time for me to love myself in respect to my sexuality, and Jason helped me do that. I wear his name with pride because it represents a man who chooses to always love and see the goodness life has to offer.
Q: You’re familiar with a lot of jukebox musicals. How do you rank “All Shook Up” in terms of the genre? What are the best qualities of the show?
A: There seem to be two kinds of successful jukebox musicals: the biographical kind and the story-told-through-someone’s-music kind. “All Shook Up’ falls into the latter category. While Elvis’ songs are used to further the plot of the musical, the plot wasn’t written around the lyrics of his songs like some other musicals in this category. “All Shook Up” uses Elvis’ music as situational expressions for the characters in the show whenever dialogue isn’t strong enough for them to communicate.
Q: Your biggest challenge as an actor playing Chad?
A: Honestly? Being “cool.” Chad is such a cool guy and I’m just a down-right nerd. It’s hard to embody cool when I’m pretty goofy. I naturally move a lot and Chad is much more still than I am. It’s hard to have a slow, calm, driving energy when I want to explode all over the stage. Being still is a challenge for me.
Q: What’s the future?
A: My biggest ambition is to be a working Broadway actor. I love to perform and now I get to do it every day. I’ve been spoiled and I realize that I’ll never be truly happy unless I’m performing on a stage. I have a long way to go but I believe in myself. If I can pay my bills with just acting and have a happy healthy marriage I’ll be so at peace with my life.
‘All Shook Up’
- Through Sept. 13
- Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, (559) 266-9494.