Devanand Janki
Director & Choreographer

from The Edmonton Journal, 7 June 1998

From here to Saigon

Ten years ago, aspiring actor Dev Janki headed for Broadway. Now he's making a triumphant return home

by Liz Nicholls, Journal Theatre Writer

An Edmonton kid, newly graduated from high school and warmed by dreams of Broadway opening nights, arrives in New York to make his fortune.

His mom drops him off at a Manhattan high-rise. "I'm terrified!" recalls Devanand Janki, laughing. "The doorman takes me up to the 26th floor, and there are three locks on the door. ... I nearly starve. I'm too scared to leave my apartment to get some thing to eat."

A decade later the personable kid from the Canadian hinterland is finally back in town. OK he's waited the odd table in the interim, but not for long. He's graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. He's been in Off-Broadway premieres of new musicals. He's rubbed shoulders onstage with the Rockettes. He's seen Europe as a Shark in the West Side Story world tour: He's been on Rosie O'Donnell and Letterman. He's made his Broadway debut at 21; he's had major roles in some of the hottest shows on Broadway.

And he's taken a leave of absence from one of them, the Broadway production of Miss Saigon which continues to pack 'em in at the Broadway Theatre, especially so he can play his home town in the American touring production of the 1989 blockbuster: Miss Saigon alights on the Jubilee Auditorium stage on June 25 for a four-week stay. And we'll see Janki in the role he does eight times a week in New York: Thuy, the gun wielding Vietnamese boyfriend who's the heavy of the piece.

When the helicopter takes off from the Jube stage that first night, as Saigon falls and the Americans are evacuated in the show's biggest stage effect, no one in the house will be more excited than the 26-year-old alumnus of Old Scona, a friendly; voluble, bubbly sort who chats up a storm on the blower from his New York apartment.

You can almost see the exclamation marks and italics when he talks. "I can't wait! I can't wait! I've been dying to do this. ... I always thought I'd be back in Edmonton to work."

When Janki revisits his old haunts, they won't be the town's pool halls and cafes. "I was always in rehearsal for something," he laughs. "Basically, I was going to high school part time. It's amazing I graduated!"

In fact, he wrote some of his finals in Banff, during music theatre programs. "A couple of us would lock ourselves in a room upstairs to study while everyone was outside. It was torture!"

There is nothing conventional about the trajectory of Janki's showbiz career. He comes from a family of "high-powered scientists and real academics" (his stepfather, Douglas Bingham, is a notable geophysicist; his step-brother Donald is a Yale gold medallist engineer 'who designs for Ford in Detroit) ... "and then there's me! Where did this come from?"

Young Janki started out in opera, as a boy soprano, thanks to his stepfather, then a member of the Edmonton Opera Chorus and now on the board.

So his earliest stage credits, collected as an elementary school kid, are Carmen, Cavaleria Rusticana, I Pagliacci, Salome, Turandot, The Merry Widow.

Then he signed up for ballet. "That's what I wanted to do. Ever since my mom (Sheila Janki) had taken me when I was four to Russia to see the Bolshoi." At 13, he was Fritz in the Alberta Ballet's Nutcracker. He danced for Ballet North ("contemporary ballets, a variety of stuff"), and spent a year at the National Ballet School in Toronto.

"That was a turning point, I guess. I realized ballet wasn't for me. It's too narrow a profession: it's all you can have in your life and I had too many other things going. ... If you think actors are insecure, just meet dancers. They're picked apart and told they're no good so much. Dancers are the hardest working, most underpaid ..."

Next column ...

"When I left Edmonton, all my dance teachers were furious with me." Janki laughs. "But my dance training got me all my jobs."

Meanwhile it was music theatre that had caught the young man's fancy; starting with a West Side Story in Sherwood Park in which he played Chino, oddly enough the role he later got in the New York company that went to Europe. He loved the Banff musicals ("I'd go back there in an instant! It's the ideal, surrounded by artists from around the world."). He was in Fringe shows that, as he recalls, got "awful" reviews.

A 1988 production of Baby at Keyano Theatre in Fort McMurray was the last time Janki was onstage in these parts. "I had a hard time leaving Edmonton. There was so much great Stuff happening here."

But Dev's Big Adventure had begun.

Janki moved to New York at 18. "I didn't know a soul. I jumped in head first," he says. "Now I feel safer in New York than other cities: people are around all the time."

He put himself through theatre school as a singing waiter on a cruise ship, the Spirit of New York, which sails around Manhattan full of inebriated tourists. He sighs: "I figured waiter was the ultimate job in New York. And I became one. And I hated it."

Out of school, he instantly landed his first job in an Off-Broadway production of Promised Land, a musical based on the life of Moses. Then he was Paul in a Long Island production of A Chorus Line. He left the West Side Story tour after the European leg. "At the beginning, touring is fun. You're a star everywhere you go. ... But I really had to make it in New York."

Flat broke, he waited tables for six months. But he was convinced by then of the hard showbiz lesson that "the only way to make advances is to leave stuff."

And then came Cats, Janki's first Broadway show. At 21, he started as one of the twin cats, then landed the flashiest dance role in the show, Mr. Mistofolees the virtuoso disappearing feline who does the riskiest, most breath-taking jumps in a twinkling catsuit that weighs 35 pounds. He danced Mr. M. for three years, "afraid to leave." He sighs, and laughs: "Every year of Cats is seven human years. It destroyed my body.

"I'm convinced it's the hardest show ever created. You're always onstage; you dance the whole time on a steep rake, eight a week. ... I don't complain about anything any more."

Three years ago, Janki understudied Thuy in the first Miss Saigon tour, rescued after 10 months on the road by "the ultimate thrill" of doing the Christmas show with the Rockettes at Radio City: "they don't build theatres like that any more." There was The King and I revival with Lou Diamond Phillips in which Janki, as a stress-filled "swing," understudied all 14 of the men.

A year ago, he was The Fakir in the premiere of Side Show, "an incredible experience" while it lasted. It lasted only six months on Broadway, alas, where Ragtime and The Lion King were reigning.

His current Broadway gig in Miss Saigon is "the fourth time I've been back into the show. They're like my family!" When the Thuy in the touring production booked holiday time during the Edmonton run, "I jumped at the chance."

"The role is the biggest challenge," says Janki. "I'm not doing any dancing. And I'm playing the villain, the disturbed guy. ... My mom prefers me to play nice guys. She'll probably figure he's just misunderstood."

"I'm a lucky boy; ...1 love New York; there's so much stimuli here.. But I'm still a Canadian boy at heart.

"Where am I from? I always say Canada!"

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