Dev's dance with NYC glory
Edmonton's award-winning choreographer notches another honour tomorrow
by Mark Lepage
NEW YORK CITY - "I always had this fantasy of being a waiter in New York," Devanand Janki says in a midtown Manhattan coffeshop.
The fantasy generally works in the reverse -- waiter has fantasies of Broadway stardom -- but perhaps Janki was so sure of his stage skills he could afford to slum it in his dreams.
At 33, the Edmonton ex-pat has been on Broadway for more a decade. He has hoofed. He has belted. Cats, Miss Saigon, West Side Story. Now, the singer/actor routinely collects awards for his work as a director and choreographer in the world's musical theatre nucleus.
His staging of the musical Zanna, Don't! won an outstanding choreography award last year for best off-Broadway production. Tomorrow, he will receive the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation's annual Joe A. Callaway Award for excellence in choreography in Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway shows.
Outside the coffeshop, Times Square is vibrating with meltdown colours. As we talk, theatre people bustle in from 8th Avenue and stop by to whisper with Janki about a hush-hush project currently in development. This much is clear: he won't be waiting tables anytime soon.
Ah, but he did. When Dev Janki moved to New York 15 years ago, he took the first job he could -- as a singing waiter on a dinner cruise in New York harbour. The self-described "proud Canadian" found himself forced to commit songcrime in a choir performing Lee Greenwood's unspeakable Proud To Be An American.
He survived. After 21/2 years of dues-paying, he was in his first Broadway production, the gruelling Cats. He played Mr. Mistofelees.
"Eight performances a week. And unlike other musicals, you're onstage for every minute of that one." Even at that early stage in his career, Janki knew that, with all the wear and tear, with all those physio sessions, the real future would be in the catbird seat.
Three years of Cats were followed by six years as an on-off cast member in Miss Saigon. There were tours of A Chorus Line and West Side Story. "I really was incredibly blessed when I came here -- I mean, I worked on Broadway for 10 years."
Then again, he had been waiting a long time.
"I got the bug when I was four." Born in London, Ont., he lived with his family in Germany and Australia before settling in Edmonton. The clan was well-travelled; Janki saw the Bolshoi Ballet on its home turf in Russia when he was a preschooler.
He grew up in the '80s and credits the Alberta oil boom for having provided ample resources for arts funding in Edmonton.
"I mean, you could get a grant to open a theatre," he marvels. (He didn't, but he did work with Edmonton Opera, Alberta Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada.)
The atmosphere prepared him to move to New York at 18. Studying at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, he finished a two-year program in a year and a half. The songboat in the harbour beckoned.
Janki says he is "not a pretty singer -- a good Broadway belter." Ah, humility. But he embraces my suggestion that success in New York demands changing some of your Canadian personal currency into American.
"Especially when you have a million-dollar production depending on you. You have to be confident." And so he has, directing legends: Lauren Bacall, Chita Rivera, Lynn Redgrave.
"There are very few directors who like actors, but I love 'em."
Janki calls himself "the king of the benefits" and he is indeed hyperactive on that front, co-ordinating AIDS charity shows and the like. He has also worked the less glamourous but contact-rich corporate scene, staging a shareholders meeting for Coke, and a deodorant commercial featuring a rare double-cheese platter: a "Most Beautiful Underarms Pageant" hosted by Chuck Woolery.
All has led to a busy datebook. Directorial / choreography projects concluded or in the offing include Sex: The Musical; the 100th anniversary of Babes in Toyland; Cupid and Psyche; an awards ceremony for Asian American performers in Lincoln Center; and "my baby," a musical adaptation of the Stephen Frears film My Beautiful Launderette.
Zanna, Don't! will be a tough act to follow; Janki was flabbergasted by the response. "Crazy rave reviews," he said. The New York Times' Bruce Weber called it "artistically the best I've seen in 10 years of covering theater." Other critics weighed in with exclamations. Exuberant! Skilled! Crisp, pointed! Delightful!
"People I really respect in the industry complimented me," Janki says. "Fred Ebb (of Chicago's Kander and Ebb) sent me a fan letter."
He has but one lingering complaint. Janki's family is Guyanese, his ancestry Indian. "As an actor of colour, I see there isn't a lot of diversity onstage. I used to get angry for years. Then I realized it was up to us to do it." So he does, casting his shows with ethnic pluralism.
Janki has spent half a lifetime living away from Edmonton, but five years ago he returned as a belter. His Miss Saigon touring company spent six weeks in the city.
"People just came out of the woodwork!" he beams. "It was like 'hometown boy makes good'." There was a speech at his junior high school, where the fantasy was incubated. Then, Janki helped host Edmonton's Canada Day festivities.
Just to wash the Lee Greenwood out of his mouth.