Fans of PCPA summer productions at Solvang Festival Theater are enjoying a homecoming of sorts for one of the lead actors in both "Lend Me a Tenor The Musical" and "Newsies." Born and raised in San Luis Obispo, actor Joe Ogren has lead roles in both productions, his first with PCPA as an adult. The 24-year-old triple-threat -- he sings, he dances, he acts -- has even moved back in with mom and dad during his guest artist run with PCPA.
"My family loves my being here," said Ogren, who currently makes his home in New York City. "My dad has told everybody he's ever met to see me in 'Lend Me a Tenor,' and the whole family will be at 'Newsies' on my birthday Aug. 11."
Ogren lived in SLO until he graduated from SLO High School. His mother, Erin Ogren, worked in real estate until assisting her son with his college search led her into a new career. She now owns and runs Central Coast College Consultants. Dad (and biggest fan) David Ogren recently retired as Santa Barbara County senior deputy public defender. He was assigned to the Superior Court in Santa Maria.
By the time the couple's youngest of three children went off to Pace University in New York City, Ogren was already an experienced actor.
"I was a pretty ambitious little kid and grew up doing community theater at the SLO Little Theatre," Ogren recalled. "I grew up knowing exactly what I wanted to do."
Eric Stein, one of PCPA's most well-known actors and the company's casting director/recruitment coordinator, taught acting at the SLO Little Theatre when Ogren was in the third grade.
"He also directed me in one of my high school plays. I was Tony in 'West Side Story,' so I've known Eric my whole life. About nine months ago, he emailed me out of the blue and said he thought he had a part for me in 'Lend Me a Tenor The Musical'."
Despite Stein's familiarity with Ogren as an actor, he still required him to audition by video. He got the part and moved back to the Central Coast in March for the start of rehearsals.
Ogren plays the character of Max Garber, assistant to Stein's Henry Saunders, an opera director, in this tale of mistaken identities and unexpected romance. When opera superstar Tito Merelli (played by George Walker) becomes ill, sheepish Max is tasked with finding a secret, last-minute replacement.
"Max is the underdog who eventually gets the girl and saves the day. It's fun for me because I get more of that best friend-type of role, the character actor roles. To have a juicy role like this is exciting."
Ogren's role in "Newsies" is that of Crutchie.
"He was born with a birth defect in one of his legs and uses a crutch to get around. But he's still a super-positive guy who works hard at selling newspapers. He's beaten up with his own crutch and taken away to a jail for boys in New York City," Ogren said of the plot line.
"Don't worry. There's a happy ending because this is Disney after all," he laughed.
Inspired by the real-life 1899 New York City newsboys strike, "Newsies" is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a stage musical. The movie version was an initial flop in 1992 but when it went to Broadway in 2011, it was a both a commercial and critical success, winning several Tony Awards. A filmed version of the Broadway show is playing select movie theaters around the country on Aug. 5 and 9.
"I grew up with that movie," Ogren said. "My brother and sister, who are six and eight years older than me, really grew up with it and knew every word to it.
"When Disney turned it into a Broadway production, young girls became obsessed with the boys in the show. They became like the Back Street Boys of Broadway," he laughed.
Broadway is Ogren's dream. In between auditions for shows on the Great White Way, he's a member of the USO Tour, singing and dancing with three female performers.
He's been to more states than he can count, Ogren said. "We've performed on bases, on ships, in theaters, at military balls and galas. Sometimes it is a pop-up stage at a kids' carnival for the families of these brave men and women who are serving overseas."
A California trip earlier this year included several stops in the greater Los Angeles area and ended at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
"They have a little stage at the community center," he explained. "It was a great experience for me."
Ogren heads home to New York at the end of August, back for more auditions and the dream of a Broadway career.
"I'm lucky that I've always been focused on that," he said. "I've been close a couple of times. I have faith it will come if I keep putting in the work."