When John Gardiner was 16 years old in the early 1990s, two crucial things happened. First, his band won a Battle of the Bands competition at Bogart’s in Cincinnati. Second, he participated in his first school play. Gardiner said that this was the ideal formative blueprint for him to eventually portray Tommy DeVito, lead guitarist of iconic 1960s pop group, The Four Seasons, on the national tour of the Broadway musical “Jersey Boys.”
“It was a culmination,” he said. “ ‘Jersey Boys’ asks for a large skill set. You’re acting, singing, dancing and playing guitar. It just so happened that I fit into that perfectly.” Gardiner paused and then added, “Thank God.”
Gardiner was born in Edgewood, Ky., just across the river from Cincinnati. He spent his adolescence playing in bands around the city and attending performances at the Aronoff Center for the Arts and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The Battle of the Bands experience actually became a memory to draw from while performing in “Jersey Boys.”
“There’s a moment (in ‘Jersey Boys’) where we have to look out over the audience, and we’re stunned because we’ve just become overnight sensations,” he said. “That Battle of the Bands show was sold out, I was 16, and I never had so many people in front of me and cheering. It was the perfect personal memory to catch a piece of what (The Four Seasons) felt like, being kids from a rough neighborhood and suddenly thrust into the spotlight.”
When Gardiner first moved to New York to pursue an acting career, he landed a brief gig on “All My Children.” He only filmed a few episodes, but it was enough to confirm he wanted to act in theater, not television.
“They were constantly focused on the lights and getting everything done quickly,” he said. “They didn’t care about the acting at all. In theater, it’s the opposite.”
So Gardiner spent five years waiting tables, tending bar, working in regional theater and playing guitar in a New Jersey Irish pub.
“I was doing OK, but I saw a lot of people give up and move back home,” he said. “It takes a lot of stubbornness, and you never know what you’re doing in your life that can help you later. I met all kinds of characters playing that pub in Jersey. I was doing research without realizing it.”
When Gardiner went to audition for “Jersey Boys,” the only part available was as a member of the ensemble. Beforehand, he did his research (consciously this time) by attending the show.
“I knew ‘Sherry and ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry,’ ” he said. “But then hit song after hit song came out and I’m just like, ‘They wrote this one, too?’ That’s when I realized (the Four Seasons) were everywhere. I couldn’t go a few days without hearing it in a store or at a bar or in the car on the radio. After awhile, I started to wonder if someone was messing with me.”
Gardiner worked his way up to the understudy position for Tommy DeVito. The director liked what he saw and eventually arranged for Gardiner to audition in front of Four Seasons keyboardist Bob Gaudio, “Jersey Boys” writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and Frankie Valli himself. Gardiner said that performing in front of this small group of people was more intimidating than an audience of 2,000.
“After it was over, they just said, ‘Great job,’ ” Gardiner said. “Then my agent got the call, and they told him I hit it out of the park. It was great to come through in the bottom of the ninth. Being a Reds fan, I always use baseball analogies.”
Between “Jersey Boys” and his previous stint on a national touring production of “The Lion King,” Gardiner will have been on the road for seven years this coming March.
“I still have a lot of extended family here,” he said. “But I have an apartment that I visit in New York, and my mother and two sisters live in New Jersey. I try to visit one of those two places every six months. It’s a little daunting, but to be an actor with a top Broadway contract in a recession like this, I feel really lucky.”
Gardiner also feels fortunate to be participating in a musical that transcends the usual boundaries.
“With most musicals, the women are enjoying themselves more than the men,” he said. “I can look into a crowd and tell which men have never been to a musical before and are wondering how long they have to stay. But by the end, they’re standing up like it’s the end of a football game. To see both men and women not only sucked into the story but cheering like it’s a rock concert, no other show does that.”
Finally, Gardiner enjoys returning to the theaters of his youth, only this time from the other side.
“(It’s amazing) coming back to star in a big show where I used to see the people that inspired me to do theater,” he said. “I can almost picture myself as a kid in the audience.”
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