He’s been Spider-Man and songwriter Gerry Goffin on Broadway, bipolar musician/teen heartthrob Craig Manning on Degrassi: The Next Generation, and many other memorable characters.
Now Canadian actor Jake Epstein is tackling the toughest role of his career – himself.
“It’s terrifying,” Epstein said about performing his one-man show, Boy Falls From the Sky: Jake Epstein Live, which comes to Lighthouse February 22 at 2 pm and 8 pm. (Click here to purchase tickets.)
“Way easier to play a character,” Epstein continued. “One of the reasons that I love acting is to be different people other than yourself – to explore different extremes that are inside you. So the idea of going up and telling a story as myself was terrifying.
“But once I started, I really enjoyed it. I’ve never felt so connected with an audience before. There’s nothing like telling a real story.”
In story and song, Epstein opens up about the thrilling highs and painful lows of life in show business – and the unexpected downside of achieving your dreams.
“I truly believed as a kid that I was destined for Broadway,” said Epstein, who got his start on stage at age 11 delivering newspapers in a Soulpepper production of Our Town at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.
“Maybe I was a strange, confident kid or something, but I just loved it so much. And because you don’t know how hard it is, you just dream and you just try.”
Epstein’s fascination with Broadway grew with each family road trip to New York, with Jake and his sister Gabi belting out show tunes all the way.
As a 12-year-old he darted around the stage as the Artful Dodger in a Mirvish production of Oliver! and the roles kept on coming, leading to a five-year run and a Gemini Award for his work on Degrassi.
Epstein honed his stagecraft in the Toronto production of Billy Elliot and the North American touring productions of Green Day’s American Idiot and Spring Awakening. Then Broadway came calling.
“My first show as Spider-Man was one of the scariest moments of my life,” Epstein said of flying around the Foxwoods Theatre in his debut as Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on December 8, 2012.
“There was an element of terror. I thought, ‘I could really embarrass myself in front of 2,000 people.”
Instead, he stuck the landing as everyone’s favourite neighbourhood web-slinger, kickstarting a memorable year that would see him play two lead roles on Broadway. Shortly after donning the spandex suit for the last time in August 2013, Epstein began rehearsals to originate the role of Gerry Goffin, Carole King’s first husband and songwriting partner, in the new show Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
In a CBC Arts retrospective on the decade, Epstein was ranked among the “10 Canadians who killed it on Broadway in the 2010s.”
He was living out a childhood dream, but Epstein’s two years on Broadway left him with physical and emotional scars. He hurt his wrists and ankles while plummeting 30 feet to the stage in a harness night after night, and as the antagonist in Beautiful he was routinely booed during the curtain call, which he took to heart.
“I never talked about my experience on Broadway with anyone. It was complicated for me,” Epstein said. “I was so grateful for the experience and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful to anyone by telling people about some of the lows of a life in show business. And so I kept it to myself for years.”
Epstein took a break from the stage, scoring recurring roles in Designated Survivor and Suits as well as parts in several TV movies. He finally opened up about his Broadway days to a few close friends, who convinced him that his stories of stage fright, rejection, and surviving the disastrous Spider-Man production needed to be told.
Further encouraged by his wife, actor and writer Vanessa Smythe, Epstein wrote a cabaret called I Hate Musicals: The Musical (“I was very proud of that title,” he laughed), and positive audience feedback convinced him to turn it into a one-act show.
“People who weren’t in the arts really related to the story I was telling. People related to this idea of being disappointed by their dreams, and about celebrating the joys and comic disappointments that come with realizing maybe your dreams aren’t possible,” Epstein said.
“People were laughing but were also quite moved by it. That was a real surprise for me. It really warmed my heart.”
Working with veteran director Robert McQueen (Fun Home, Life After), Epstein developed the script for Boy Falls From the Sky, a winking reference to his superhero days.
“In the original cabaret I would tell a story and then launch into a full song, but in my show, the stories and songs are all linked. I’m constantly switching back and forth,” said Epstein, who sings and plays guitar on stage, accompanied by musical director Daniel Abrahamson.
Though he explores heavy themes as he pulls back the showbiz curtain, his chief aim is to entertain.
“First and foremost, I want them to laugh and have a good time. That’s why I do this,” Epstein said. “Everything is told in a joyful way. I’m actually ultimately celebrating everything and making peace with everything.”
Toronto Fringe audiences couldn’t get enough of Epstein when Boy Falls From the Sky debuted to sold-out houses and raucous applause in July 2019. NOW Magazine named the show one of the best of the festival, praising Epstein’s performance and McQueen’s direction.
“This is excellent musical theatre storytelling by a performer with natural star power – including the ability to make everyone in the audience feel as though he is talking to them alone. The 70 minutes speed by too fast and are over too soon,” wrote theatre reviewer Jennifer Barr from The Whole Note.
Mooney on Theatre critic Wayne Leung called the show “pitch-perfect.”
“Epstein carries the solo show with a casual ease, as if he were regaling a group of friends over beers at a bar,” Leung wrote. “He is affable, down-to-earth, and his narrative is sprinkled with gentle self-deprecating humour.”
As a relatively new show, Epstein said Boy Falls From the Sky is still a work in progress, and he looks forward to introducing it to Port Dover audiences on February 22.
“I’m trying out new material at Lighthouse, which is phenomenal. I’m so excited to perform there,” he said, adding that each live performance is a thrill.
“I’m a huge fan of storytelling, and storytelling can’t work without the audience. It’s kind of that back-and-forth conversation.
“Being in a room with people laughing and enjoying it, there’s nothing like creating that real energy. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Tickets to Boy Falls From the Sky: Jake Epstein Live are $29 each. Get your tickets here.