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A career that’s hitting some high notes
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A career that’s hitting some high notes

Jewish roles are starting to sit better with West Orange’s Brandon Uranowitz, now starring in ‘Falsettos’

West Orange native Brandon Uranowitz, here with co-star Stephanie J. Block, plays Mendel, a psychiatrist in the revival of the musical Falsettos.
West Orange native Brandon Uranowitz, here with co-star Stephanie J. Block, plays Mendel, a psychiatrist in the revival of the musical Falsettos.

“I still love seeing people fly,” actor Brandon Uranowitz, 29, said, recalling his very first trip to Broadway when he was in elementary school, when seeing Cathy Rigby soar in Peter Pan entranced him.

Uranowitz, a native of West Orange, has seen his own career take flight in recent years, most recently as a star of An American in Paris, in which he played the role of Adam Hochberg, the Jewish composer and pianist (played in the 1951 film by Oscar Levant) who is forced to flee from the Nazis. Now he’s back on Broadway in yet another Jewish role, that of Mendel (a psychiatrist with questionable ethics) in the revival of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, a musical about a quirky Jewish, baseball-loving family that is itself coming apart at the seams.

Uranowitz didn’t always think of himself as tailor-made for Jewish roles. His family was not particularly religious, although he did have an “I Love New York”-themed bar mitzva at B’nai Shalom, a Conservative shul in his hometown. But, starting at the age of six, he spent Saturdays learning acting, song interpretation, and both jazz and tap. He begged his parents to take him to see Broadway musicals. “My parents had to put a limit on it,” he said, with a chuckle. Then again, “because my dad was taking me, he got bitten by the theater bug himself, and wanted to go to the same shows over and over. He saw Crazy for You six times and Tommy five.”

Before long, Uranowitz was appearing on major stages himself, doing Ragtime in Toronto, A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden, and Evita at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. And he appeared in Broadway Kids, an Off-Broadway showcase for children who had been in Les Miserables, Annie, The King and I, and the like. But after his bar mitzva, he decided that he needed to take a break. “My mother had uprooted her own life to move with me to Toronto for eight months for Ragtime. And it had gotten to be really intense. My friends at school resented the fact that I was away so much. I wanted to have a normal adolescence.”

He could not stay away from theater for long, however, going on to act in school productions at Montclair Kimberley Academy and then at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. After graduating from college in 2008, he got cast in the ensemble for the national tour of Rent. Thrilled to be chosen to understudy the role of Mark Cohen, the Jewish filmmaker who also serves as narrator, Uranowitz never went on as Mark; over 14 months of performances, the actor playing the role never missed a single show.

But soon Uranowitz got another break, appearing for the first time on Broadway in 2011 in Baby, It’s You, the show based on the story of the Shirelles (the first major rock and roll “girl group” — and also New Jerseyans, from Passaic), in which he played two roles, including the blind son of Florence Greenberg, the Jewish housewife who became the group’s unlikely promoter.

It was when Uranowitz got his first starring role, in a 2013 production of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, directed by Michael Kahn at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC, that he first had to delve deeply into his own Jewish roots. Playing the gay Jewish lead, Arnold, led the actor to reflect that “growing up in a Jewish family, with parents who were identifiably Jewish in their mannerisms, was important. That sensibility is recognizable to people, and it can touch and move them. That is where so many Jews get their sense of humor and coping skills from.”

“When I was auditioning actors for Torch Song Trilogy” at the Studio Theatre, Kahn told NJ Jewish News, “I despaired of finding anyone for the role that Harvey Fierstein made so much his own. I didn’t want to find someone exactly like him; I wanted to find an original.

“When Brandon walked in on the last day of casting, I was floored. He was brilliant. He was his own character. He handled it magnificently, both the pathos and the comedy,” said Kahn. “I knew immediately he was the person. He was a huge, huge success in the role, and I can’t wait to work with him again after he finishes Falsettos.”

While Uranowitz said that he is “not very religious” and does not attend shul, he realized that “Jewish traditions and demeanors are part of who I am.” Indeed, he mused, playing Arnold “cracked open this person who lives inside of me.”

The actor has reconciled himself to the fact that he is being cast repeatedly in Jewish parts. “When you’re in college,” Uranowitz explained, “you think that because you can play all kinds of roles, that people will see you that way. But then everyone tries to pigeonhole you, to corner you into some kind of market.” His very Jewish-sounding name, he said, was a “touchy subject.” But he decided not to change it. “Being Jewish can only serve me as an artist, because of the pride that comes with it.”

Now Uranowitz is back on Broadway for 14 weeks in Falsettos, a musical (costarring Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, and Stephanie J. Block), which debuted on Broadway in 1992 and which culminates in a bar mitzva in a hospital room where the celebrant’s father’s lover is dying of AIDS. Because the show has a kind of absurdist quality, all the characters live in what Uranowitz calls a kind of “heightened reality.”

Uranowitz described Mendel as a “sensitive, neurotic character who tries to deflect a lot of things with humor. He’s a doctor who himself needs a lot of help.” Mendel, who romances the wife of one of his patients, is, he reflected, “a metaphor for a lot of Jewish people who appear to be coping and perfectly fine on the outside” but are actually hurting within. The characters in the play are all, Uranowitz said, “flawed, opportunistic and holding on to those rare moments when everything aligns.”

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