John Tartaglia
(© Tristan Fuge)
John Tartaglia
(© Tristan Fuge)
John Tartaglia has modestly made a name for himself in New York theater, first with his Tony Award-nominated work as Princeton/Rod in Avenue Q, followed by his work as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast and Pinocchio in Shrek the Musical. If kids missed him on stage, they certainly know him from the Disney Channel's Johnny and the Sprites. His new project, John Tartaglia's ImaginOcean, now at New World Stages, is a live black-light puppet show that presents a magical and musical undersea adventure. Tartaglia recently chatted with TheaterMania about the creation of this enchanting show.

THEATERMANIA: This is your first project since Shrek the Musical. How did you get from the land of Far Far Away to the bottom of the ocean?
JOHN TARTAGLIA: I actually originally did this during Shrek; I took a leave of absence so we could work on it. The show was conceived for Royal Caribbean's cruise ship, Oasis of the Seas. It was a much shorter version. Right before we left, though, we did a workshop of it here in New York City just for fun, and we invited some friends and they invited some friends, and someone from New World Stages came and really fell in love with it!

TM: You wrote the show's book. Can you describe the specific process when it comes to writing for kids?
JT: It's always writing on two levels, that's my thing. With kids you have to really spell everything out. In some ways, they're much smarter than we are, but when it comes to following exposition and things like that, you have to really kind of nail it in. My goal was to keep it simplified so that kids would understand it, but add layers into it so that the adults will enjoy it too. There are all kinds of nice morals and humor that can appeal to everybody.

A scene from ImaginOcean
(© Aaron Epstein)
A scene from ImaginOcean
(© Aaron Epstein)
TM: Bubbles, Dorsel, and Tank, the three lead fish characters in this show, have very different personalities. Are any of them modeled after you or people you know?
JT: Believe it or not, they're modeled after my friends. Donna Drake, who is the show's director, is completely Bubbles, and she also does the voice of her. I am Dorsel in many ways. I'm not a germaphobe like he is, but I'm very paranoid, and I do tend to worry about everything. I'm totally the one who's going to worry about the world coming to an end.

TM: People might be surprised to hear that you're not actually starring in this production, although your voice can still be heard through a number of the characters. Was that tricky?
JT: I am the voice for Tank, Dorsel, and Leonard, but yes, the whole thing is tracked. However, I think the talent of the puppeteers makes it feel as though the voices are live. Ryan Dillon, who performs Dorsel, has really listened to every single little nuance that I recorded, and that's what makes it seem so live and so good.

TM: If John Tartaglia, the Sprites, Dorsel, a four-year-old boy, and Pinocchio all sat down for lunch, what would the conversation be about?
JT: It would be about who has had the biggest adventures! That's always been something that's in all their stories.

TM: Who do you think would win?
JT: Oh god. That's like pitting your children against each other! Actually, the four- year-old boy would probably win. They have the biggest imaginations of all, and the biggest adventures and spirits.

TM: If you could choose any three artists to perform in the next John Tartaglia musical, who would they be?
JT: I love the Dixie Chicks, I think they're brilliant. I've always wanted to do a puppet musical with Carol Channing. She calls for that, because she's such a great character. I'm the biggest dork, so I have to admit I'm a big Celine Dion fan. I want to bring in a Celine Dion puppet or something like that, and have it sing her music. That's probably the most eclectic mix I could have picked!