Ken Wasser has played nearly every leading male role in musical theater. One role, however, always seemed an impossible dream — until now. When Man of La Mancha opens Thursday, Feb. 11, at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal, it will be Wasser treading the boards as Don Quixote.
While Richard Kiley was 33 when he portrayed the idealistic, farcical Spanish “knight” in the original Broadway production in 1965, and Peter O’Toole was 40 when he starred in the 1972 film version, Wasser believes his current age — 60 — is about right.
“I think I needed a certain amount of years, an amount of maturity, to approach the part,” Wasser told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview. “It’s similar to…Fiddler on the Roof. I don’t think you can play Tevye when you’re 30.” (Topol was 35 when that movie was released in 1971.)
Wasser actually did play Tevye “a few times, but I’ve done it 15 years apart. Maybe it’s just the living and experience,” said Wasser, who lives in West Long Branch with his wife, Linda; he is the father of three daughters — Erica, Rachel, and Natalie — so he feels he has an extra insight into the character.
“It’s the same thing with Don Quixote. I didn’t want to play it until I thought I was ready because I did not want to fall short. Quixote goes through a journey in the show and I don’t think I could have done justice to it at an earlier age.”
Wasser was born in Newark and attended the Maple Avenue Grammar School and Weequahic High School, leaving early on Wednesdays to appear in matinees: His first professional role came at the age of 11 when he played Frederick, one of the Trapp family sons, in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music. Since then, he has starred in such classics as The Most Happy Fella, Carousel, Oklahoma, and many others.
He compared being on the “Great White Way” with community theater. “My performance is my performance; I approach it the same way,” said Wasser, who has appeared at the JCC of Greater Monmouth County’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center in several productions over the past five years. “The difference is that community theater has some issues, audience being one of them. People are…not always willing to attend locally because they feel it’s ‘just’ community theater. The challenge is putting bodies in the seats because that’s what gives you the energy.”
A short run like this — there will be only five performances of La Mancha — has additional challenges, said Wasser, who attends Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls. “You would like a longer run. Far too often you say, I wish we had another couple of weeks because I just realized what I would do differently in this situation or that.
“I wonder how Richard Kiley was able to do it night after night. Don Quixote has so much dialogue and there’s strong singing as well, and the fear is that you will wear yourself out.” Fortunately, Wasser hasn’t found himself in that situation, “but it’s something you have to be aware of,” he said.