Zak Resnick as Jamie in "The Last Five Years" at American Conservatory Theater (courtesy ACT)
In San Francisco this spring, 28-year-old Zak Resnick is reprising a role he first played in Richmond on the stage of the Firehouse Theatre Project at age 17. Starting May 11 and continuing through June 5, the 1,200-seat American Conservatory Theater is running Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years.”
Resnick plays Jamie, a writer who tells his love story with Cathy, an actor, from first kiss to breakup. Cathy, portrayed by Broadway alum Margo Seibert, tells her version from end to beginning.
“I’m 28, Jamie is 28. It’s good to play the character with this perspective,” Resnick says. Noting that he’s been with his real-life girlfriend for a year, he deadpans, “This show about divorce opened on the night of our anniversary.” But she’s in the business, too, and understands the sometimes odd juxtapositions presented by their mutual art.
“The Last Five Years” is partly an autobiographical story about the playwright who, when he wrote the piece, did so to ease his grief at the end of his relationship. “And now he’s married with kids, and the events of the play are another life ago,” Resnick says.
This is an intimate two-character show that usually runs in houses of a few hundred seats. “ACT is definitely a Broadway-sized house,” Resnick says. “The stage is enormous and you walk out and there are balconies and it’s huge. And it’s just us two: we have to fill the room with us and the story. I think we do.”
He has no trouble reaching the back rows with his voice or presence. The 6-foot-4 actor’s huge voice can belt a show-stopping ballad and croon and near-whisper a love song well enough to make rows of audiences swoon.
But the early training and preparation work started right here in Richmond, where his father, Mark, operated City Ice Co. and mother, Peggy, sent him at age 7 to classes run by the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC). His first show was “Oliver.”
Through SPARC, he formed a bond with Mary Page Nance, “She was the ‘Put on a Happy Face’ girl in ‘Bye, Bye Birdie,’ ” he recalls. Nance is now an ensemble member in the long-running Broadway show “Finding Neverland.” Resnick also performed alongside Bud Weber, now in “Something Rotten” on Broadway. “I think our first show together was ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’ ” His best friend then was Drew Seigla, who trained as an opera and musical theater performer, and is playing the Mute in the Broadway monument, “The Fantasticks.” (Read more about Nance, Weber, Seigla and other locally connected actors working in New York in our July issue’s “Richmond to Broadway” feature.)
SPARC launched Resnick to numerous stages throughout the region. These included the Firehouse Theatre Project’s “Bat Boy” (with SPARC alum Emma Orelove, also included in our July feature) and “The Last Five Years.” Via Carnegie Mellon University, the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Melbourne, Australia, and even American Idol, he aimed for the Great White Way.
Carnegie Mellon presents showcases of its seniors; this led Resnick to Los Angeles, where he received a good reception from people who might have connected him to work. At 21, though, he was building a professional life in New York. “And I didn’t know anybody in L.A. I didn’t have any familiarity with it,” he says.
The plan was to move to New York, slap a few Broadway shows under his belt and then head to L.A. Resnick laughs. “But that’s not how it works. So here I am with seven years of Broadway credit, some off Broadway. My girlfriend has lived there eight years. L.A. is novelty and fun for me.”
He’s been busy since he left Richmond, and fortunate, he says, giving workshops, concerts, taking understudy roles and many readings of shows. And he got to sing at Carnegie Hall for a celebration of the New York Pops Orchestra. That talent bench included Angela Lansbury, Aaron Lazar, Kelli O’Hara — and Tom Wopat.
Resnick played a DJ in an ABC Family movie with Wopat and Jane Seymour titled “Elixir.”
“Disaster!” came for him in 2013. Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnik mix-mastered the tropes of 1970s disaster movies and Top 40 hits of the period. When the Off Broadway show moved to Broadway, Resnick was replaced by Adam Pascal (Roger Davis in the original “Rent”).
“It was a floating casino where everything that could go wrong does go wrong. The songs were ‘Sky High,’ ‘Alone Again (Naturally),’ ‘Hot Stuff.’ ”
Resnick then auditioned for the role of Sky, the groom-to-be in the Abba-based musical “Mamma Mia!” that with various personnel changes ran 14 years. He’d gotten called in three or four times before, but due to his own scheduling couldn’t join the cast. He had subsidized his career by working as a singing waiter at Ellen’s Stardust Diner — and due to his calls for stage work — or the potential — he often switched shifts.
“I got the talk from the manager: ‘Do you want to keep working here or what?’ So this audition for ‘Mamma Mia!’ came along at the right time.”
Here, he tells how 104 people from Richmond came to see him on opening night:
Part of the challenge in the role of Sky, which he played for almost two years, was that he wore little for most of the show. His costume was a “glorified Speedo.” To keep in shape, he hired a personal trainer and embarked on a physical regimen that he maintains. This is life when you are your instrument. He says, “Usually, I’m the guy who wears his shirt at the pool.”
Resnick wanted to go west to L.A. and see what the town might offer. But he kept getting work. And couldn’t shake the power of the 1600 block of Broadway, where the Stardust Diner is located and where “Mamma Mia!” played.
Then came the opportunity to star in “Piece of My Heart.” He originated the role of songwriter Bert Berns, who wrote rock hits like “Twist and Shout,” “I Want Candy,” and the titular piece that Janis Joplin turned into the power ballad. The New York Times gave good notices.
He got an agent in January who offered him West Coast representation, leading to “The Last Five Years.” But still, it seemed like New York might pull him back. Just as technical rehearsals began in San Francisco, Resnick got a second audition for the lead in a new musical. After booking red-eye flights and hiring a vocal coach to guide him into three new songs, he jetted back East, arriving at 5 a.m. He hit the gym and warmed his voice for an 11 a.m. appointment where he sang the piece he’d learned for his previous audition, not the ones he had recently prepared. “And it was ‘Thank you very much,’ and I said ‘You’re welcome,’ and that was it. I got nothing.”
Frustration and disappointment is the dispiriting stuff an actor takes if he spends long enough in the effort. Resnick’s established track record and excellence in what he does isn’t at issue. What it all comes down to is the basic uncertainties of the business.
Resnick knows both of the principal actors who were cast in “Nerds,” the highly anticipated musical about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs which got its plug pulled in March — while rehearsals commenced in the theater and set pieces were getting loaded in — because of the sudden departure of a financial backer.
While Resnick loves New York, the city’s never-ending hustle and bustle is wearisome. “L.A. is laid back, less stress, the weather is beautiful. You don’t have the horrible [Metropolitan Transportation Authority system]. There might be terrible traffic in L.A., but I can put on my headphones rather than be sitting across from some guy in the train screaming at me. The business I’m in will never be stress-free, but you can work on controlling the levels.”
While still “somewhat young,” he wants to try getting into film and television. With the advent of Netflix and Hulu, shows are coming up for audition with greater frequency, sometimes several in a day — “which has its down side because you get all these pages for different shows and you can’t fully prepare to do your best work,” he says. “At the end of the day, an audition is an audition. You cross your fingers and put yourself out there because there is absolutely no way to know to what they’re looking for.”