Manoel Felciano stars in the ACT production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Photo by Ashley Forette Photography
Manoel Felciano, a San Francisco native, had to play Broadway before he could make his hometown professional stage debut.
He’s starring in American Conservatory Theater’s season-opening production of the Tom Stoppard drama Rock ‘n’ Roll, now in previews, opens Wednesday, Sept. 17 and continues through Oct. 18.
And he says the role of Jan, a sort of stand-in for Stoppard himself, is a good fit.
“Jan is something of a nerd, an intellectual,” Felciano says. “He’s a huge rock fan, and he became politically activated later in life. That’s me as well. Politically, the last seven years have been a galvanizing force.”
Through the upheaval of the play, which documents Prague’s revolution in the ’60s and continues into the ’90s, rock music provides a sort of connective tissue between the emotions and the politics.
“In some ways, “Felciano says, “music is a political action in itself. The act of playing a record loud where it is forbidden, is a subversive act. I love that, and it’s part of what makes doing this play here in San Francisco so perfect. This is where some of the music on the soundtrack came from.”
Felciano, known as Mano to his friends, was born 30-some years ago to a Portuguese father and a Swiss mother. He started playing the violin at 5 but later added bass and guitar to his repertoire because “the violin is no way to get girls.” While attending the bilingual French-American International School here in San Francisco, Felciano was tapped for a small role in San Francisco Opera’s Carmen because he could speak French.
“I was 10 years old, and backstage, I had the gall –or was it lack of superego? – to go up to Placido Domingo and in Spanish tell him that he sang Spanish very well.”
That was the last time Felciano was on a professional stage in his hometown. After graduating from Yale and beginning a life on Wall Street, Felciano got sucked into the world of musical theater when he was cast by Hal Prince in the ill-fated Washington, D.C. production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind.
From there, he landed swing and understudy parts in Cabaret and Jesus Christ Superstar, among others. While in Superstar, and after he fell off the stage and into the orchestra pit, injuring his hand, Felciano decided maybe it was time for a little formal acting training.
Grad school paid off handsomely with the plum role of Tobias in John Doyle’s acclaimed 2005 production of Sweeney Todd in which the actors also played all the instruments (Felciano played violin, keyboard and clarinet). The gig scored Felciano a Tony nomination for best supporting actor.
Now he’s back on familiar territory – at least geographically. Other than doing a scene from Stoppard’s The Real Thing in grad school, this is his first Stoppard play and first time working with director Carey Perloff.
To connect with his character Jan’s love of rock, he need look no further than his own love of rock, which began when his dad played him a Beatles song. Felciano was about 10 and immediately headed to Recycled Records, the neighborhood record store on Haight Street, where he bought “Introducing the Beatles.”
Felciano ended up working at Recycled for a number of years, and on a recent visit to the vinyl specialty shop, he recognized the same turntable he used to spin as an employee.
With his own vinyl collection now numbering in the hundreds, Felciano says his prize LP is the Beatles’ “Yesterday and Today” album with the “butcher cover,” the photo of the boys amid decapitated babies and meat that was almost immediately recalled.
During rehearsals, the cast has been listening to the music Stoppard mentions in the play, everything from the Beach Boys to Guns N Roses, with detours into the seminal Czech rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe.
Talking about music, Felciano grows fevered.
“Music, especially the way it’s used in this play, is everything it’s supposed to be: irrational, sexual, visceral, personal, hypnotic. It makes you want to move, scream, fuck, dance, break things. Music is such a primal force. It’s seductive.”
Stoppard is one of the most complex playwrights working, and his blend of intellect, passion, politics, world history and human drama is deep and rich. It also means a whole lot for the actors to work through.
“I trust what Stoppard has written will carry me,” Felciano says. “It’s like with Shakespeare or a Sondheim lyric, it’s all there in the words. The historical, cultural and political context is important, but what really matters is the character’s need and what the conflict is. Audiences instinctively get that.”
After Rock ‘n’ Roll, Felciano will hang around San Francisco a little longer before heading home to New York. He’s appearing in the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s
Zipperz on Nov. 14, which features music by his childhood friend Nathaniel Stookey and a libretto by one of his former French-American International School teachers, Dan Harder. (Visit http://www.oebs.org/page/nov.htm for information)
ACT’s Rock ‘n’ Roll continues through Oct. 18 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.
Visit Manoel Felciano’s Web site at http://mano.felciano.com/
And of special note, The Plastic People of the Universe just happen to be performing in San Francisco at Slim’s on Thursday, Oct. 9. Tickets are $15. Visit http://www.slimstickets.com/evinfo.php?eventid=27443&sid=
Here’s Manoel Felciano performing his original tune “Purple Perfect” with the help of Julie Reiber at the Broadway for Barack Benefit Concert, Feb. 11, 2008: