It was a little overwhelming at first. "I didn't know I was going to be doing this part originally," he says. "I auditioned, like, five times before I found out. Prior to the last audition, they had offered me a position in the ensemble covering Will. Then I got a call that they wanted me to do the role, after my final audition for Trevor and Cameron [Mackintosh] and Stro, and...I was just out of my mind. I couldn't believe I was going to be working in that environment with those people. It got even better when they told us that they were flying the principals to London to work with Trevor for two weeks."
The London visit--Bohon's first--started on January 7. Between binging on West End shows and studying lasso twirling with the fortuitously named, 80-year-old champion Rex Roper, Bohon boned up on his character. He began by reading Green Grow the Lilacs, the 1931 Lynn Riggs play on which Oklahoma! is based. (The new production incorporates some dialogue from Lilacs). Though Will Parker doesn't even appear in Riggs and is mentioned only once, Bohon found the homework invaluable: "The play is very specific about the environment. It paints a really graphic picture of what life would be like in that part of the country in 1907. That's what I got from Green Grow the Lilacs, more than any specifics about my character."
For those who are unfamiliar with Oklahoma! (both of you), Will Parker is the amiable, grinning lad set on marrying Ado Annie despite her, ahem, speech impediment (she cain't say 'No') and her worst-nightmare of a father. Bohon has seen other Wills--according to his mother, Oklahoma! was his first musical, when he was about seven months old--but has tried to erase their memories and come up with his own perspective. "Will is not exactly the brightest character in the world," he says. "He's a bit naïve, sort of following around this woman he's in love with, and she is less than faithful. But he's charming, because he's so loving and so trusting. He's a good old boy. He's always there for his friends and he is infatuated with this girl and willing to do anything for her."
Bohon is playing opposite a relative Broadway veteran, Jessica Boevers (Rent, Les Miz, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum), and the two have been encouraged by director Nunn to delve more deeply into this couple than most productions of Oklahoma! bother to do. Not that Will and Annie are exactly swelling with subtext; but, says Bohon, "Most of all, I think what's overlooked sometimes are the true feelings he has for her. Despite all the comedy, he's very much in love with Annie and goes to all lengths to prove it. I think that, oftentimes, Oklahoma! is just fluffed up; there are so many real elements, real human issues involved. And a lot of the darkness can be overlooked. Here, they've done a remarkable job at pulling out those human qualities in every character, finding out what makes them tick and how they interact with each other."
The young actor-singer-dancer praises Nunn for having such a clear vision of the material and yet welcoming so much input from the cast: "He has said several times, 'You know, we cannot discount what we did before, because there was a formula that worked very well in London. But we also can't discount that you all as a company bring an entirely different energy to it.'" And Bohon is nuts about Stroman. This is the first major Oklahoma! revival to scrap the original Agnes de Mille dances altogether and, he says, "I just fell in love with the way [Stroman] can tell a story through choreography. Every single 'and' count--that's a half of a count--has meaning. There's nothing superfluous about any step she ever does; there is always a reason, always some motivation. As a character, you can't help but be thrust into the moment by what she has done because it's so explicit and so full of detail."
He hadn't quite counted, however, on the time and energy he'd have to spend learning the ropes--literally. "I can honestly say that, no matter how much theater I do--and this is a pretty brave statement to make at 24 years old--nothing will be quite as challenging as working with that rope," Bohon says. "As a dancer and a gymnast, I'm used to picking up those types of things fairly easily, but [the rope] is not that type of skill. It's more like learning to play the piano. You have to do it over and over and just commit to the process. Then, one day, you wake up and all of a sudden you're like, 'Oh!' It just clicks. Now this rope and I are getting along--we're dancing together as opposed to fighting all the time."
Bohon is more or less guaranteed an opening-night ovation, since his family will be on hand to lead the cheers. Mom and Dad are both schoolteachers and sister Melissa is studying musical theater at Justin's alma mater, the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. J.B.'s versatility and musical-comedy-juvenile looks helped him snag some good parts at CCM, like Peter in Babes in Arms and Danny in Baby, then landed him a Broadway stint in Miss Saigon and a job in the national tour of Parade. After Oklahoma!, he aims to rope Marius in Les Miz. Playing Will is a thrill, and it's a long road from Missouri to the Gershwin--but Justin Bohon has definitely not gone about as fer as he can go.