Broadway performer Ben Jeffrey has been trying to return to San Juan for two years — ever since his last show on the island.
“I love this place! My brother and I have been moving mountains to get me back there, and we were FINALLY able to bring it to fruition. I couldn’t be more excited,” Jeffrey said. “My last experience was a thrill and a delight, and I’m ready for more!”
Jeffrey’s brother, Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey, is SJCT’s artistic director, and wouldn’t stop pestering Jeffrey about coming to perform, Jeffrey said with jest.
“He’s a brilliant director and one of my favorite people to work with, so I leaped at the chance to see what he’s doing in Friday Harbor,” Jeffrey said. “Coming to this beautiful island, and getting to know the wonderful people here, is a real treat for me. I’m so excited to be back.”
Returning as part of the San Juan Community Theatre’s Summer Concert Series at 7 p.m., July 17 at the San Juan County Fairgrounds. Admission is free for all.
“I’ve never seen a community that rallies around the arts like San Juan island. It’s incredible,” Jeffrey said. “Theater has been losing shows, theaters, and support in unprecedented ways due to the pandemic, but San Juan Island has supported its theater, local artists, and its community in a way that takes my breath away. There’s a kindness and energy about this island that is really special.”
After “catching the theater” bug in high school, Jeffrey went on to pursue acting in college in Texas and grad school in New Jersey. Following grad school in 2009, Jeffrey moved to New York City.
“In an amazing turn of events, I auditioned for, and subsequently booked, Pumbaa in ‘The Lion King’ about four months after I’d moved to the city,” Jeffrey said. “I often tell aspiring actors that this is NOT the typical New York actor’s story! I’m very fortunate and grateful.”
Jeffrey’s also has acted in Disney’s ‘Aladdin,’ where he played Babkak and several television shows including ‘FBI,’ ‘Orange is the New Black,’ ‘Madam Secretary,’ and more.
“The biggest difference is that unless I’m performing Lion King on Broadway, I’m legally prohibited from performing it anywhere else! So when I come to Friday Harbor, it’s special because I get to pick songs — mostly from Broadway shows — that are speaking to my life and the kind of stories I’m interested in telling right now,” Jeffrey said. “Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE playing Pumbaa, and can’t wait to get back. The story of Lion King is rich and beautiful and life-changing. But Pumbaa is a character; while there’s a good deal of overlap between Pumbaa and myself, when I come to San Juan Island to do a performance, I get to share a piece of who I am with this community. That’s about as good as it gets.”
“The Lion King” is set to return to the Broadway stage on Sept. 14. Jeffrey explained that, like much of the country, every facet of the theatre world was affected by the pandemic.
“I’m one of the lucky ones; my show will reopen, so I’ll have a job to go back to,” Jeffrey said. “Also, my wife isn’t in the performing arts industry, so she’s been able to work remotely and support our family.”
Jeffrey recognized his luck, noting several colleagues have shows that will not return and several regional and community theatres were shuttered permanently. Prior to the pandemic, Jeffrey was performing in eight shows a week. He added that while actors are used to hustling for more work, there simply was no work to be done.
“Also, there was a loss of community and support; I’ve shared a dressing room with the same guy for 10 years, and he’s one of my closest friends. We went from seeing each other nearly every day to seeing each other two or three times in the past year,” Jeffrey said. “But I think one of the hardest parts was that we weren’t able to engage in liver performance at all; most of us got into this industry because we love it.”
Jeffrey explained he’s appreciative of the opportunities he had to do some television and virtual performing, but added he is ecstatic to return to the stage once more this fall.
“I’ve never been more excited about going back to work and putting on my 50lb puppet and listening to people laugh, cry, and be taken away by that story. And I don’t think anyone, artist or audience, will ever take live performance for granted again.”