GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Julius Sermonia of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'
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by Adrienne Onofri
The last time Julius Sermonia was on Broadway, he was barely out of his teens and had more experience performing at Disney World than in musical theater. Now a veteran of national tours in the U.S. as well as Canada’s regional theaters, Sermonia is back on Broadway in the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Directed by Des McAnuff, this production of Jesus Christ Superstar originated last year at Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where Sermonia has been performing in classic musicals the last five years. Though Sermonia’s career began in the United States, he’s worked exclusively in Canada for nearly a decade. Superstar marks his return to Broadway since he was in the final cast of Cats in 2000. Both musicals are by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Sermonia made his Broadway debut in Cats on Christmas Day 1999, following a year on the show’s tour; he played Mistoffelees in both companies. After Cats closed on Broadway, Sermonia performed for nearly two years on the national tour of Contact, the Tony-winning dance musical created by director-choreographer Susan Stroman. “I love the way she directs a dancer,” Sermonia says, “’cause she enjoys directing dancers who are actors too.” That jibed with how he’d been trained by his childhood dance teacher Allain Lupien at the Canadian Dance Company in Mississauga, the town outside Toronto where he grew up. “He taught us there is always acting in dance,” says Sermonia. “He implemented a lot of characters in the choreography, so I grew up always putting a character on, whatever the dance was going to be.”
Sermonia took classes nearly every day and represented the Canadian Dance Company in competitions right through high school. He remembers a poster that was always hanging up in the studio—of Cats, the show that would eventually launch his career. But when he was first cast on the Cats tour, he says, “I really didn’t know anything about musical theater and [being on] the road.” He’d been performing for two years at Disney World as one of the Kids of the Kingdom—who sang and danced in revues with Mickey, Minnie et al—and his career goal at that point was dancing in the music industry out in L.A. When he flew up to New York for the Cats audition, he left his sheet music on the plane, so he had to sing “Happy Birthday.” As for the rest of the audition, “it was like A Chorus Line,” he recalls. “We were at the Broadhurst Theatre and they lined us up 10 at a time, and you had to go up there and state your name and do a double pirouette and stand back in line. Then they’d call: ‘Girl in the green…boy in the blue…Hawaiian kid…everyone else, thank you very much.’ I was ‘Hawaiian kid.’”
Actually, he’s Filipino. Sermonia was born in Manila and lived in the Philippines till he was 5. His parents emigrated to Canada when he was 2, but left him and his older sister with grandparents while they got settled in their new country. When he joined them three years later, he had a baby brother.
That brother, Jason, is also in Jesus Christ Superstar, making his Broadway debut. The Sermonias play brothers in the show, the fisherman apostles James (Julius) and John (Jason). They live together as well, and they know that most siblings probably couldn’t spend all that time together. “It’s rare…special,” says Julius. “We get along so well, and we know each other well enough to know when not to bother each other.” They’ve worked together multiple times at Stratford and also auditioned for projects that one got and the other didn’t, but even that hasn’t been a problem. “It’s cheesy cliché, but we just wish the best for each other,” says Julius, noting that they’re different types of dancers. “He’s a powerhouse, more of the athletic dancer; I’m more stylized.”
The brothers have been dancing together since Julius was about 10 and Jason 6 and their mother enrolled them at the Canadian Dance Company after seeing an ad for the dance studio promising “boys dance for free the first year.” Their older sister, April, originally took dance classes with them, but she later dropped out; their younger sister, Genny, eventually joined them in the studio, and she too is now a professional, performing most recently on the Mary Poppins tour. (Jason’s wife-to-be is also in the biz: Shortly after moving to New York in February, he got engaged to Canadian actress Melanie McInenly.)
At Stratford, Julius has appeared with his brother in Guys and Dolls, Anything Goes (where they played the Chinese gamblers), Camelot and Jesus Christ Superstar. His sister was in Stratford’s West Side Story with him in 2009—a production starring Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy, now headlining Superstar as Jesus and Mary Magdalene, as Tony and Maria. Sermonia portrayed Chino, a role he also had in a 2005 production of West Side Story at Theatre Calgary and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre (which Jason was in too).
Julius’ additional regional credits include The Drowsy Chaperone at Manitoba Theatre Centre, Beauty and the Beast at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, and Hair at Toronto’s CanStage. His other shows at Stratford include Evita, My One and Only, Cabaret, The Music Man, Oklahoma, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Kiss Me, Kate. The 2009 Forum had a run the next year at Mirvish Theatre in Toronto.
Doing shows set everywhere from ancient Rome to Weimar-era Germany to the early-20th-century Midwest, Sermonia clearly hasn’t been typecast by his ethnicity. Among his featured roles have been a Brooklyn-esque gangster in Drowsy Chaperone and one of the Rhythm Boys (a group originally portrayed on Broadway by African-Americans) in My One and Only. He put on a Scottish accent to understudy Mordred last year in Stratford’s Camelot and found truth in his Oklahoma cowman when he learned that the earliest cowboys were Spanish settlers.
Getting to be in these iconic musicals is just one of the things Sermonia treasures about working at Stratford, where a couple of musicals run in repertory each April–October season with about 10 plays, half of them Shakespeare or other classics. “You’re not only a part of two musicals in rep,” he explains, “but you’re also watching all these classical actors perform...all these legendary greats, like Christopher Plummer, that you get to pony up to the bar with. Hearing their stories and then watching them on stage, my jaw’s dropping. To me, I got paid to learn from all these people.”
Sermonia has now done five consecutive seasons, six total, at Stratford. The company’s been headed since 2008 by artistic director Des McAnuff, formerly of La Jolla Playhouse in southern California. “Des comes along and brings in all these amazing directors to work with,” remarks Sermonia, who’s been directed by such Broadway vets as Gary Griffin and John Doyle at Stratford.
He also enjoys the ambience in the town of Stratford (pop. 31,000), which is located about two hours southwest of Toronto and sits—like its namesake in England—on an Avon River. “It’s very cozy,” says Sermonia. “The atmosphere there is very ‘white picket fence’: The mailman would wave to you, you say hi to your neighbors. Everybody’s riding their bikes. It’s a beautiful small town, a great place to work.”
Having skipped college to go work at Disney World right out of high school, Sermonia appreciates the training he’s gotten at Stratford. “They offer a lot of classes for company members,” he says. “That was huge for me as an education.” Working on specific shows, he’s learned about other subjects through the extensive research that the creative teams often share or encourage. On Superstar, for example, a dramaturge provided religious and historical background and information about life in Judea. “It was up my alley,” Sermonia says. “I always wanted to be Indiana Jones when I was growing up.”
Most of his time at Disney World, Sermonia had his eye on the West Coast. “Orlando was going to be my stop to L.A.,” he says. “I wanted to move to L.A. and dance for Michael Jackson—or Janet, any of the Jacksons. I wanted to be a commercial dancer. I’m a technical dancer but I also love hip-hop. I wanted to do all that.”
A Disney coworker, convinced Sermonia’s singing and acting talents shouldn’t go to waste, started showing him video clips of Broadway musicals like Rent, Evita and Fosse. Today Sermonia too is convinced that “where I belong is on stage—the proscenium—entertaining people that way. I’m a song-and-dance guy.” And he gets to live out his pop-music dreams vicariously through his friend Leo Moctezuma, whom he met at Disney and who now dances for the likes of Beyoncé and Britney Spears.
Content with the choice he made, Sermonia is now also happy to be back on Broadway—the pinnacle for any theater performer. “I feel very blessed to come to New York with a job already, instead of pounding the pavement auditioning,” he says. But he did need to reacclimate after so many years in the much more intimate city of Stratford. “There, everywhere you go there’s people that recognize you from the Festival. I really enjoy the anonymity in New York. No one notices you if you want to. Here, you put on your earphones and get where you need to go.”
Of course, the theater community has its own insularity. Sermonia was tickled to discover that he’s on the boards at the same time as Telly Leung (Godspell) and Aaron J. Albano (Newsies), as they’d all worked together early in their careers in a 2003 production of Miss Saigon at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.
Photos of Julius, from top: right, in Jesus Christ Superstar, with his brother, Jason, behind him on the left (also pictured, from left, are Jeremy Kushnier, Mary Antonini and Nick Cartell); as Mistoffelees on the Cats national tour; in Manitoba Theatre Centre’s The Drowsy Chaperone, with Eric S. Robertson; in My One and Only at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival; working at Disney World in 1998. [Jesus Christ Superstar photos by Joan Marcus; Drowsy Chaperone photo by Bruce Monk; My One and Only photo by David Hou]
Where to see some previous Gypsies of the Month currently (click on asterisk next to name to read our profile of that performer):