When Jason Graae arrived in New York 20 years ago to make his way in Broadway musicals, people immediately pegged him as a Joel Grey type. Graae's first agent even wanted him to change his name to Grey, on the perhaps understandable grounds that, pronunciation issues aside, no name trailing three vowels behind it ever had found its way onto a marquee.
But here Graae stands, his name on compact discs, theater programs, sitcom credits and marquees. His humorous cabaret act is booked this week at Founders Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center. It is still spelled Graae, and still pronounced "grah," unchanged in honor of his father, a native of Denmark who made his way to the United States after fleeing the invading Nazis during World War II.
Not that Graae had a problem being likened to Joel Grey.
"He was my hero. When I first moved to New York, so many people said, 'You're like Joel Grey, you're short and have curly hair.' People don't make the comparison so much any more. I'm my own man. I was watching "Cabaret" on AMC last night. I just loved him because he was demonic yet delightful. Something creepy, yet warm and lovable. I'm completely different from him now. Creepy maybe, but lovable? No."
Those who love their show tunes embroidered with lots of quips probably won't mind that Graae is not Grey.
"He'll do anything for a laugh and usually gets one," The Times' Daryl H. Miller wrote last year in a review of Graae's cabaret show in Los Angeles. Miller also noted "his endearing ability to get misty-eyed when singing a love song."
Judging from a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, Graae is not one to hoard his quips for the stage; or he's one of those preternaturally "on" folks for whom all the world is a stage.
His credits include playing Harry Houdini in the Los Angeles run of "Ragtime," the part that brought him west after 13 years in New York, and his assortment of roles as a cast member of the "Forbidden Broadway" spoof-homage to musical theater. But he may never have had a career in musicals if not for two disastrous turns in his college career.
Graae grew up in Tulsa, Okla. His mother performed in musicals, but his artistic calling was the oboe, which he took up as a sixth-grader. "My parents bought me 'Peter and the Wolf' and that cinched it; the oboe is the duck, and the duck gets eaten at the end. What a beautiful, mournful sound."
Graae went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas to become a concert oboist, but he hated the approach of the school's only oboe professor. Graae transferred to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music to escape the "very honky, very Germanic style" of playing he was being forced to learn. Then his new oboe teacher left for a job playing with a symphony, and who should take over but the same instructor he'd left Dallas to escape.
"I took that as a sign from the musical gods" that his other love, musical theater, would be a better fate. The oboe lives on, however, in a classical interlude that's a set piece in his shows.
"I didn't want to just be in Joel Grey's footsteps. I have more to offer," Graae quipped. "The oboe is one thing I can stand out on my own about. You could say I try to go for baroque."
Graae's New York City tenure included several Broadway and off-Broadway musicals, but his voice traveled farthest in the series of Lucky Charms breakfast cereal commercials. For five years he was the voice of the trademark leprechaun. After moving to Los Angeles, he continued to record his parts on the West Coast until the New York ad agency decided "we need a local leprechaun."
Graae has consoled himself since then with steady work as a guest actor in sitcoms such as "Frasier," "Friends," "Providence" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." His first solo album, "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile: Jason Graae Sings Charles Strouse" had cover photos of Graae wearing nothing but a smile and a strategically placed hat and cane.
Graae recently won his first operatic part--a non-singing role in the Los Angeles Opera's upcoming production of Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow."
"I always feel I'm going into something that's completely new for me. Therefore I'm titillated and scared." He continues to sing some old standbys, including songs by Jerry Herman ("Mame," "Hello, Dolly!") in a traveling concert tribute to Herman that premiered last year. The composer himself is part of the show.
Performing in the Herman revue in Miami on the day the United States began its attack in Afghanistan, Graae saw firsthand how new realities can lend fresh poignancy to old songs.
"Jerry said, 'Maybe we should skip this show.' We said, 'No, we need this more than ever.' His music comes from such an innocent time and place." The audience responded in a special way, Graae said, finding something bittersweet in those reminders of innocence. "We were all sobbing. The audience was all sobbing."
Look for laughter in Graae's cabaret performances.
"The reason I got into this business was fantasy and escape," he said. "Everywhere you look now, [news of war and terrorism] is in our face. Any chance you can get not to be thinking about it is fine by me. Go see me, you'll get a respite. Even if you sleep for an hour and twenty minutes, you'll get a respite."
Jason Graae, Orange County Performing Arts Center, Founders Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tonight , 7:30 p.m., Saturday, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., Sunday, 7 p.m. $39-$43. (714) 556-2787.