Not long after he slipped on his first pair of tap shoes at the age of 4, Rick Faugno knew he was destined to be a performer. The New York native just never envisioned the performing would take place in Las Vegas. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever live in Las Vegas—and I don’t think many people do.”
Faugno, who first starred on Broadway as a 12-year-old, playing Will Rogers Jr. in the Will Rogers Follies, arrived here in 2008 when—after a yearlong stint on the national tour of Jersey Boys—he was offered the lead role of Frankie Valli in the show’s Las Vegas-based production. Shortly after the curtain went up at the Palazzo in April 2008, the rave reviews started pouring in from critics and fans alike, with a big chunk of the acclaim directed at Faugno for his deft portrayal of Valli.
For Faugno, the success of Jersey Boys was the culmination of nearly two decades of work as a singer, dancer and actor. But after doing the show as frequently as six times a week for 3½ years, the 32-year-old decided to branch out on his own. Tapping into his inner Sammy Davis Jr., he launched the one-man variety show Body & Soul at the Las Vegas Hilton’s Shimmer Cabaret in May, performing a 75-minute set once a month. That increased to once a week (8:30 p.m. Fridays) in August, two months before Faugno signed off as Frankie Valli for the final time.
How tough was it to leave Jersey Boys?
It was bittersweet. After giving so much of my life to the show and having that be a part of my daily life for so long, and then just have it be done, it’s a big thing. It’s a tough move because it’s a comfortable lifestyle. It was a lot of work, but you know you’ve got that nice steady paycheck coming in every week. But you know when it’s time to move on and grow, and there are other things I want to do in my career … and you’re limited with the kind of things you can do when you’re in a show that’s every night.
What is it about Jersey Boys that has resonated with Las Vegas audiences?
It’s many different things. First of all, it’s a real story, a blue-collar story, about four guys who come from very humble beginnings, and they try for years to make it; I think it was 10 years before [Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons] broke, when they finally got the right group of guys together to make it work. And you see that in the story. Also, each guy in the group is such a character. It’s kind of like The Beatles in a way, where each guy has his own individual, unique personality. Then you’ve got the music, which everybody loves; the songs are just so catchy. … On top of that, you have the Mafia influence; you’ve got a [character] who was a real Mafioso, which is perfect for Vegas.
It really touches on a lot of different things, but I think what separates it is the fact it’s not just a jukebox musical [with] a story that’s just propelling the songs. It’s a story that can actually stand on its own with great music. It’s really a play with music.
When did you know you wanted to be a performer?
I started to take trips into [New York City] with my parents when I was a kid, about 7 or 8 years old, to see Broadway shows. And the first show I ever saw was Me and My Girl with Jim Dale, and that’s what did it for me. Because I saw this guy performing onstage, and he was a true song-and-dance man. I had been taking dance lessons for a few years, and I was at the point where I was starting to appreciate song-and-dance men. I had seen Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and people like that on TV. But this was the first show I ever saw live, and it just left an impression on me. I remember leaving the theater that night just dancing down the street.
How would you describe the theme of your one-man show?
One of the things I love is it’s constantly evolving. I’m constantly taking songs out, putting new ones in, changing up the connecting tissue in between songs. … It’s more of a Sammy Davis Jr. kind of club act that you would know from the ’60s. That’s been my goal. But that’s the part that’s been the most fun for me—I get to have creative control over what I do. … I want it to be like a variety act, which has kind of disappeared. You don’t really see people sing, dance, banter with the audience, play the piano, play original songs that you wrote, play drums.
Any part of you wish you had lived in the Rat Pack era?
It’s interesting you bring that up, because a couple of weeks ago I saw Midnight in Paris, the Woody Allen film, and it’s about a guy in Paris who’s a writer, and he’s constantly fantasizing about Paris in the 1920s and wishing he could’ve lived back then. And in the story, at midnight, this car would come around the corner and it would be from the 1920s, and he’d get in and they’d drive off and he’d be in the 1920s with all the people from that day—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, all these people. Well, I always say that I feel like I was born 50 years too late, that if I could do that same thing in the movie—just get in a car or in some teleporting machine and go back to those days—I’d do it in a heartbeat. Because I feel like those days are when my kind of entertainment was thriving, especially in Vegas in the ’60s.
There was a headliner at every hotel, it was all live performances with people doing what I’m doing. There were no gimmicks. There were no big production shows that have kind of pushed what I do to the side. So yeah, I do feel like I come from a different time.
You recently played the lead role in the independent film Virgin Alexander. What are your acting aspirations?
I definitely want to do more film. I really want to get to L.A. more often and be seen for more films. If I really had my way, my dream would be to have my headlining show in Vegas and do movies, movies with substance, that have some sort of dramatic guts and depth to them, movies like Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando or Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman [have made].
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a performer?
There are a few things that I’ve always wanted to be, and one of them is a boxer. I’ve studied boxing and studied with some guys who were welterweight champions, a guy who was in the Olympics, and I’ve done some sparring. I think if I didn’t have to rely my looks for a living and I could just get pummeled to death, I probably would’ve been a boxer.
You sing, you dance and you act. Is there one of the three you feel you’re most proficient at or enjoy more?
Not really. I always looked at myself as being a triple threat—a singer/dancer/actor, not trying to put too much weight on any one thing because I love doing everything. That’s how I’ve always seen myself. I never wanted to just be a dancer or just be a singer or just be an actor, because I always longed to do those other things. And I always looked up to the greats like Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Kelly and Astaire, all those guys who could do everything. I was like, “That’s what I want to do; that’s who I want to be.”
What was your first impression of Las Vegas?
When my wife and I moved here—she was in [Jersey Boys] at first and is a Broadway performer—we just didn’t know how to take Las Vegas. She partially grew up in Reno, so she kind of had a little bit of that casino-oriented background. I had never experienced anything like it. So it was completely different for me. But about a year into it, I really started enjoying the lifestyle and enjoying getting more and more into the local scene and embedding myself in the culture of Vegas. And being able to star in a show on the Strip and also do a one-man show outside of that, and make money doing it—I never could’ve done that in New York and could never do it in L.A. So Vegas is a very, very special and unique place when it comes to that. You can make yourself whatever you want to be.
Did you know Jersey Boys was going to be a hit in Las Vegas?
Well, we all knew it was a hit in New York, and everybody knew it was a hit on tour. But nobody knew how exactly it was going to play in Las Vegas. I think people had a feeling it was going to do well, because of the content of the show. It’s got the mafia influence, it’s got the great music, it’s got a great story. But Vegas can be tricky with Broadway shows. So nobody really knew. But when people started to see how well it was being received, then we started to get a little more comfortable. Once we started to see reviews coming in and people were responding to it well—not just the critics, but the people coming to see the show, their reactions were just [great] across the board. Nobody had a negative thing to say about it.
You can tell when you’re onstage when an audience loves what you’re doing, and to get that energy back from them and have them standing on their feet at the end of the show, screaming, applauding, dancing in the aisles, then you know you’ve got something.
What’s the highest compliment someone paid you during your time with Jersey Boys?
There’s been so many great things that people have taken away from the show, but to hear things like “That brought me back to when I was a kid” or “You sound just like Frankie” or “I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight” or “You made me cry” … the list goes on and on of compliments like that that really stick with you. And to hear people say, when you walk out after the show, “Wow, that really struck a chord with me. It’s the best night of my life, the best show I’ve ever seen,” things like that, as a performer, it doesn’t really get any better than that.
When did you start mapping out a game plan for your post-Jersey Boys future?
I had been sort of dabbling outside the show, fulfilling my own creative needs, when I did my first one-man show at the South Point; I did half a dozen shows down there. Then when I started this new show [at the Hilton], I started it back in May about once a month. Then in August it started becoming a weekly deal. So I had sort of been nurturing it for quite a while and getting it off the ground a little bit. But honestly, I’ve been doing the groundwork for a couple of years and trying to step outside the [Jersey Boys] show and be recognized as myself, as Rick Faugno not just Rick Faugno [as] Frankie Valli from Jersey Boys. Because you can get typecast. People see you in that role and they think you’re so great, and they can’t see you doing anything else.
What’s the biggest challenge of doing a one-man show, and what’s the most rewarding thing about it?
I’d say the biggest challenge is all the burden rests on you, and you’re responsible for everything—for the show being good or not being good. You’re the guy the buck stops with; you can’t pass blame to anybody else. If the show goes up late, it’s your fault. If the band doesn’t sound good, it’s kind of your fault. If the sound in the room isn’t good, it’s kind of your fault. So there are a lot of things that rest on your shoulders, and that’s a lot of responsibility, keeping everything together and running smoothly. There are no excuses. I don’t have a company of people that I’m performing with [so] I don’t have the ability to rely on anybody else to help me. If I’m not feeling good, if my voice isn’t feeling up to par, if I’m low on energy, whatever the reason, I can’t say “Hey guys, back me up on vocals. Do this dance step.”
And there’s nothing else to distract people. I don’t have fancy lights, I don’t have a video screen, I don’t have dancers. It’s just me and a band, which is very challenging, but it’s the most rewarding thing, too, because I’m doing it all on my own. And that’s what I’ve always wanted to show people, that it’s possible you can do it, and also prove to myself that I could do it. Just like Sammy Davis, he’d get up onstage, nothing special, no fancy special effects, no dancers, just a guy and a band. Sinatra, the same way, a guy up onstage doing his thing. That’s the most appealing thing to me.
Who’s the one performer you wish you could’ve performed with, and why?
I would have to say Sammy Davis, only because he embodies everything that I want to be, that I want to do, that I’m working toward. He did everything. He was the most multifaceted entertainer—one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived. And that’s who I fashion myself after. If I had the chance to get onstage and sing and do a tap trade with him, that would’ve been the best.
What’s the last great movie you saw?
Midnight in Paris. It was a really well-crafted, well-acted movie. Great storyline and it was really inventive and unique. You could tell Woody Allen wrote the script, because it had some meaning to it and it wasn’t frivolous, and they were talking about real issues. This was a guy who genuinely wished he had lived in Paris in the 1920s, and I could really connect to that.
You’re doing your show once a week and have said you’d like to expand it. So do you see yourself staying in Las Vegas for the long haul?
Definitely. I feel like I’m where I should be. I feel like I’m doing what I should be doing and where I should be doing it. … I’ve really become part of Las Vegas, and Las Vegas has become a part of me. And to just give it all up and go back to New York or move to L.A., I don’t think it’s what I’m supposed to do.