It's unfair, of course, to burden Scott Sauber, who was third choice for Fagin in the Jefferson Performing Arts Society's upcoming two-weekend run of Oliver!, with this sort of implied comparison. But there does seem to be a certain kismet at work this year, pulling the young actor out of the background into stage center. Sauber was, until recently, "a strong member of the chorus," to use his own words. He was also running a summer theater program for high schoolers (with his partner Frannie Rosenberg). This labor-intensive endeavor required not only directing and choreographing, but hanging lights, designing sound and building scenery -- 12-hour days, in short. He also did some stage managing, notably for David Hoover, his former mentor at the University of New Orleans. You might say he's been coming up through the ranks.
Everything changed last September when Sauber heard JPAS was mounting The Wizard of Oz. He decided to audition. He'd been asked to do parts before, but never stepped up of his own volition and tried to get one. He had his heart set on the Scarecrow. He got the part, and that very entertaining trip down the Yellow Brick Road was the start of a frenetic, year-long voyage into the limelight. Next, he played the hunchback RiffRaff in Jonne Dendinger's critically acclaimed The Rocky Horror Show at the Cowpoke's, and then the intoxicated Njegus in JPAS' The Merry Widow.
In all of these roles, Sauber turned in performances that were fresh, comic and full of charm. He sang well and danced with an easy confidence. I say "he" danced, but the impression was that the character was dancing -- an accomplishment all the more striking given Sauber's lack of training.
"I just sort of picked it up as I went along," he says with a self-deprecating shrug.
The "just sort of" aspect of Sauber's rise in theater is partly a matter of personal style, but it also reveals a great wellspring of confidence beneath a bedrock of genuine modesty. Sauber, who is 28, grew up in Lakeview. He attended Brother Martin High, but had no interest in the stage -- until he saw Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat, presented as the summer show at St. Luke's Church on Canal Boulevard. The next year, he volunteered to help and was asked by the director if he wanted to sing a song.
"I sang 'Day by Day,'" he says. "I was awful."
Sauber had been bitten by the bug, however, and when he attended UNO, he immediately got involved in theater.
"They needed someone to sing the part of the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors, but they wanted someone who would also make the puppets of the plant. I was willing to do both," he explains.
One of the things that slowed down Sauber's emergence as a performer was cancer. It's a subject he brings up hesitantly, when there's no avoiding it. In 1997, the year he graduated from UNO, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation, but the disease reappeared the next year, sending him back for another series of treatments and surgery. Since then, he has been "clear." In fact, watching the vibrant, agile young performer rehearse, it's hard to imagine he was ever gravely ill.
Fagin, the small-time criminal with a gang of boy pickpockets, is a plum part. He's an ingratiating scoundrel with some good song numbers -- "Pick a Pocket or Two," "Be Back Soon" and "Reviewing the Situation." He's usually played by an older character actor. At JPAS, the role first went to veteran Kris Shaw, but he had scheduling conflicts. So director-choreographer Michelle Pietri passed it on to hoofer Alton Geno, who had confessed -- on hearing Oliver! was in the works -- that he had always wanted to play Fagin. Then Geno hurt his back. Sauber was already in the show, playing the smaller role of Sowerberry, the undertaker.
"Scott is young for the part," explains Pietri. "But I knew he could do it. Often with an older actor, you have limited dance possibilities. Scott will be a spryer Fagin. That adds a whole new level of fun."
And what's next for Sauber in this annus mirabilis? "Nothing," he says with a smile of satisfaction and relief. "Nothing at all. It's been great, but I'm taking April off."