SAN DIEGO — It's a long way from the sidewalks of San Diego to the bright lights of Broadway. But Barry Bernal used the skills honed in his hometown to skate into a starring role in a big Broadway musical.
The much-ballyhooed "Starlight Express"--done entirely on roller skates--is to begin preview performances Feb. 17, and Bernal may be well on his way to star status.
"Isn't it incredible?" he said. "I'm in shock." The 23-year-old dancer is no stranger to Broadway. He made his mark as Mr. Mistofelees, a major dance role in the smash hit "Cats." But snaring the lead in this long-awaited, London-born blockbuster is a higher peak.
"I've done 'Cats' so long on Broadway, but this is actually a much bigger and better experience," Bernal said. "This time around, I'll be creating the role on Broadway" instead of inheriting the part later in the run, as he did in "Cats."
"That means things like making the cast album, and if I'm good enough, the possibility of a Tony nomination. And instead of learning the routines set on somebody else, the dances will be choreographed for me. It's a real Cinderella story," Bernal said.
"This show is done entirely on skates, and the set is three times as big as 'Cats.' I play C.B., the Red Caboose, and along with dancing (on skates), I have three songs to sing."
Bernal almost missed the opportunity to play Mr. Mistofelees, because he lacked singing experience. Now, with more voice training and a triumphant stint in "Cats" to his credit, the young trooper is ready for anything Broadway can dish out.
"It used to be enough to be a triple threat (singer, dancer and actor) to make it in a Broadway show," Bernal said. "These days they want you to dance, sing, act, do acrobatics--and even skate."
Bernal's background includes everything from baton twirling and martial arts to scuba diving. Learning to hold his own as a roller skater was one of the fringe benefits of growing up in San Diego.
"I had the San Diego boardwalk for my training ground. Then, when I heard they were auditioning for 'Starlight Express,' I went out and bought a pair of $25 skates. I didn't want to invest any more, in case I didn't get the part," he said. "Then I skated for three hours straight, but my feet got all blistered and I couldn't skate again until my audition."
After Bernal's first tryout for "Starlight Express," he was told he would be considered for the ensemble--not for one of the starring roles. But the show's director, Trevor Nunn, who directed Bernal in "Cats," wanted him back.
"When I said hello, Mr. Trevor Nunn, he gave me a hug and said that he only needed to know if I could skate," Bernal recalled.
Just the same, when the call came from the casting director offering Bernal the plum role of C.B., Bernal was dumbstruck.
"All I could say was thank you, I was shaking so much. When I told one of my friends about the part, he said, 'Do you realize that you are the envy of at least 1,000 people right now?' Then it began to hit me, but I still can't really believe it's all happening."
Will success spoil Barry Bernal? Not likely.
"I'm just a country boy. I like the idea of a house in the country and a white picket fence," Bernal said. "I'll be with the show for one year, and then we'll see what happens. I'm just taking it like it comes.
"Sure I have dreams, but I've got to be realistic. I can have all these dreams, but I really look forward to getting back to California (some day). Eight shows a week is very hard. It takes a lot out of you, and you really don't have any life outside of the realm of the show. I'm only 23, and my body is already falling apart from the strain."
Movies, video and commercial work could be right around the corner.
"Right now, I'm the only Oriental male on Broadway (Bernal is of Philippine descent) and once the show opens, there could be a lot of work for me doing commercials. But I'd also like to work in small theaters. I never did any stage acting when I was in San Diego, but I'd like that."
By landing the leading role in "Starlight Express," Bernal has made it to the top of his profession, but there's no time to rest.
"It's hard to get a job, but once you get the big chance, you can't just skate through the job," he said. "You can't slack off, and you can't party. You have to maintain your body, and do the best job you possibly can--and it's a killer.
"But I love it."