SAN DIEGO – Jai Rodriguez, known as one of The Fab Five on “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” and as Geoffrey on “Malibu Country” opposite Reba McEntire and Lily Tomlin, has been in San Diego for weeks rehearsing for what he calls a role of a lifetime.
Rodriguez will play Usnavi, the narrator and a major character in the hip-hop and Spanish-infused musical “In The Heights,” which will be staged July 30 through Aug. 25 by San Diego Repertory Theatre in partnership with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
“This is a role I was born to play,” he said of his character, Usnavi, the Dominican-American bodega owner in Manhattan’s Washington Heights who is in love with a beautiful woman named Vanessa.
That statement might raise a few eyebrows considering that Rodriguez is openly gay and not of Dominican-American heritage.
His celebrity status did not help Rodriguez land the role, either. “I shockingly, shockingly had to audition for it,” he said, laughing. “It is totally different than anything I’ve done before.”
The audition sold director Sam Woodhouse on Rodriguez for the role. “I killed the audition,” Rodriguez said. “They didn’t know that I could rap.”
There were other reasons, too. “I’m Latino myself,” Rodriguez said. “I know Washington Heights … I know a lot of the back story of the musical.
“I have a lot in common with the character. The character is about my age. Growing up, I too had a strong sense of responsibility. I understand the weight and responsibility that Usnavi feels. I also was raised by a grandmother. There are a lot of similarities about who we are.
“I fell in love with the story and with the music,” he said. “The references to the city, the trains … made me homesick. I have lived in L.A. for seven years now.”
A native New Yorker
Born on June 22, 1979 in the Long Island city of Brentwood, N.Y. to an Italian-American mother and a Puerto Rican father, Rodriguez said he was raised by one of his grandmothers. In school, he performed in gospel choirs and studied musical theater at what is now the Long Island High School for the Arts.
Rodriguez found success early, playing the HIV drag queen Angel in “Rent” for almost five years. Then he was cast as the “Culture Vulture” expert on the groundbreaking Bravo TV series “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy,” along with The Fab Five team of Ted Allen as the “Food and Wine Connoisseur,” Kyan Douglas as the “Grooming Guru,” Thom Filicia as the “Design Doctor” and Carson Kressley as the “Fashion Savant.”
The high-profile nature of “Queer Eye” had its good points, and its bad ones. “I was typecast as the Puerto Rican Emily Post,” he said.
After “Queer Eye” ended, Rodriguez moved from New York City to Los Angeles seven years ago. He said he told his “team” that if “In The Heights” ever came to the West Coast, that he wanted to be part of the musical. He jumped at the chance to audition for San Diego Rep.
For the part of Usnavi, Rodriguez has dived into the character. “You might not recognize me,” he said, laughing. “I’m wearing my urban facial hair and haircut. My choice.”
Although Rodriguez is not Dominican-American, he said he knows the Dominican culture of the thriving New York community in the northern corner of Manhattan. He describes the differences between Dominicans and other Latino ethnicities.
“They don’t dress the same. The food is different. They bring an island flavor to everything,” he said. “The island culture is strong, a different tone. Several generations have now lived in northern Manhattan.
“Many speak Spanglish. They cannot read Spanish, and they cannot understand Latin TV that well. Specifically, you are half New York, and half where your family came from.”
The Dominican culture is alive and well in the musical. “In The Heights” vibrantly captures what it is like to be Dominican in Manhattan, told through hip-hop music and other Spanish-themed vibes. The musical won the Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Score and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Rodriguez, as a gay man, noted that the LGBT community can relate to the show. “Even in the gay community, we have our own lingo and way of talking,” he said. “For us, calling someone a ‘bitch’ is not necessary an insult!”
“The sense of home or belonging or loving” is something we can all relate to, he added.
Younger actors in show didn't know the "Queer Eye" connection
Rodriguez said he is enjoying his stay in San Diego, and amused that many of the younger cast members from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts know nothing about his past as a prominent member of “Queer Eye.” He said they all watched a recent “Queer Eye” marathon on Bravo TV.
Rodriguez does have one beef with San Diego Rep. “I didn’t get to go to Pride,” he said. “I am so upset that San Diego Rep didn’t recognize that it is a national holiday!” He did make an appearance at the Pride of Hillcrest street party, not recognized by many because of his scruffy appearance, he said.
For those keeping score, Rodriguez says he is single and happy. His last boyfriend was Dr. Chris Donaghue, a sex specialist in L.A. and the host of the “Bad Sex” reality-TV show on Logo that Rodriguez produces. He said the second season of “Bad Sex” returns later this summer.
Rodriguez and Donaghue was a couple for 2½ years, but things didn’t work out in the relationship. They, however, are friends and continue to work together on “Bad Sex.”
“It takes a guy with a lot of confidence to come up to me and engage with me,” Rodriguez said. “I prefer to just hang out with friends when I go out.
“You have to like me at my Adam Levine best or my Amanda Bynes worst,” he joked.
Rodriguez compares his skills at dating to that of his character, Usnavi. “He is about as clueless about dating and I am,” Rodriguez said, laughing heartily.
He said guys often assume that he lives a glamorous life, which is polar opposite of the truth. He is more of a homebody, and spends a lot of time using Social Media such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. He said he is not afraid to be controversial with his opinions, especially on Twitter.
“I like an open dialogue,” Rodriguez said. “I may be right. I may be wrong. It can be a teachable moment.”
Although “Malibu Country” was not renewed, Rodriguez has other potential roles coming up. But perhaps fearing jinxing any opportunity, he won’t elaborate.
One of the perks granted to Rodriguez for performing with San Diego Rep is that the company will present his popular one-man show, “Dirty Little Secrets,” on Aug. 20. Leave the children at home, he warns, in describing the adult nature of the show. He says he talks about ex-boyfriends, having sex with girls before he came out, his first sexual experience with guys, and all sorts of juicy topics.
“No one is safe!” he said with a big belly laugh.
San Diego Rep and the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts will stage “In The Heights” from July 30 to Aug. 25 at the Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza downtown.
Tickets are priced from $35 to $62 for general admission, $18 for students, with discounts for groups, seniors and the military. Call 619-544-1000 or purchase online HERE.