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A human side of Deven May

The longtime `Bat Boy' wondered if he'd ever get to move beyond outsized roles. Then came `Jersey Boys.'

June 03, 2007|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

Newark, N.J. — AUDIENCES who last saw him sporting Vulcan ears, fake fangs and a shaved pate, greedily lopping up stage blood after beheading a cow, may have some trouble recognizing Deven May as the slick, pompadoured wiseguy Tommy DeVito in the Broadway hit "Jersey Boys." Though the Tony-laden show about the Four Seasons singing group does have "Boys" in the title, May, the versatile actor best known for creating the title role in "Bat Boy: The Musical," is all grown up now.

"I'm happy that people are now associating me with Tommy and 'Jersey Boys,' because Tommy is a man," May said in a recent interview conducted, serendipitously, in a restaurant at Newark International Airport. May, in person a gregarious, excitable guy with a darkly chiseled look that wouldn't have been out of place in a 1950s biker film, italicized the word "man" to stress not only Tommy's maturity but his, er, species.

"Tommy's not a bat creature," May said with a relieved chortle. "After 'Bat Boy,' I remember going in for roles on things like 'Dark Angel' and 'X-Files,' and they were like, 'Would you be Alligator Man?' 'Could you possibly be a sort of half-ape, half-foot -- a foot/ape boy?' "

Indeed, in the years since "Bat Boy" -- which May originated at the Actors' Gang in 1997, then headlined in a successful off-Broadway run in 2001 and in a less stellar London bow in 2004 -- the actor, now 36, was in some danger of being typecast in Gothic rock-opera mode. He played a brooding artist in silk pants and trench coat in "Notre Dame de Paris," the bloated French import that opened the Paris Las Vegas hotel, and he was in the San Francisco tryout cast of "Lestat," the ill-fated Elton John-Linda Woolverton adaptation of Anne Rice's vampire novels. (The producers bought him out of his contract before the show alighted briefly on Broadway, which, May confessed, made him "sad at the time, but I guess I dodged a bullet there.")

Indeed, though May is an accomplished musical-theater triple threat, his odd, electric energy and beguiling mix of utter conviction and air-quotes irony make him a natural for outsized roles. When you're willing and able to embody absurd, even otherworldly extremes, chances are you'll be asked to go there.

"He is absolutely fearless," said Larry O'Keefe, the composer of "Bat Boy" and, more recently, "Legally Blonde." "He's got a reckless energy; he can do just crazy stuff. But he is also unusually consistent for a young musical-theater hero." That's why O'Keefe keeps May's name at the top of his Rolodex: "He's always the one I call first whenever I have a gig."

When O'Keefe and his lyricist partner, Nell Benjamin, tried out for jobs on the stage musical of "Shrek," they called May. "He played the donkey in our 'Shrek' audition piece. He can do anything with his voice; friends who heard the recording were like, 'Who's that black guy?' "

Director Des McAnuff, who created "Jersey Boys" with book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, spotted May at auditions over the years and noted his "extraordinary wolven, piercing blue eyes, like Sinatra" (quite an acting feat, since, for the record, May's eyes are hazel, with gold and brown flecks).

"He's a little larger than life, a little animated," McAnuff said. "He has a bit of a swagger, and he has the greaser moves down. He's very comfortable in that era. But he's a complicated package: He can be extroverted and he can work it, but he's also a genuine actor; he takes it very seriously."

McAnuff recalled rehearsing a scene in which the Four Seasons are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with May as DeVito narrating the moment. "When he hit that speech the first time, he teared up," McAnuff marvels. "He was talking about a band that had never before received the recognition it deserved from the rock 'n' roll aficionados. The fact that Deven understood that moment and was so moved by it was very significant."

Off the stage, May's bravado occasionally cracks to display the easy-touch sensitivity that is both the blessing and bane of all actors. When he spoke about his salesman father, who used to play Four Seasons eight-tracks in the family van in San Diego, May calmed his patter for a wistful spell.

"I wouldn't say my father wasn't supportive, but when I told him I was going to do acting, he said, 'Don't be a fool, boy,' " May recalled. "My parents wanted me to have a happy life, not a life full of dread and fear and drama, or being scared of where your next meal is going to come from." But a recent e-mail from his dad "laid out the most emotion to me that he ever did -- he even wrote 'I love you' at the bottom. I mean, that blew me away."

'Chess' moves

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