Joey Fatone’s Broadway Debut Earns Raves From ‘Rent’-Heads

Praise, standing O's thrown 'NSYNC star's way during debut week.

‘NSYNC fans and Rent-Heads seem like they come from two different worlds, but if Joey Fatone’s first week on Broadway is any indication, those worlds are in sync.

On August 5, the curtain rose on Fatone’s debut in the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical “Rent,” in which the pop star stepped into the lead role of Mark Cohen, the struggling documentary filmmaker who acts as the narrator and moral conscience of a group of New York City 20-somethings (see “Joey Fatone Finds Broadway ‘Exciting,’ But ‘A Lot Of Work” ). While “Rent” has been running on Broadway for six years, this was the first time that a music star had taken a role.

“A lot of people in the industry do understand that Broadway is a very hard thing to do, because we’re doing eight shows a week,” Fatone said on Thursday prior to curtain call at the Nederlander Theatre. “Not many stars or artists or singers do a lot of shows. Maybe when they first start out, you know, every artist that’s starting out tries to do a lot of shows. But we do eight shows a week, and it’s kinda tough.”

Opening night, Fatone said, was the toughest show of all. Not because of all the pent-up expectations — many Rent-Heads expected him to fail, or at least believed he wouldn’t be up to snuff — but because it was a lifelong dream come true.

“I was a little nervous, obviously, and the adrenaline was rushing,” he said. “It was very exciting to be doing it. My parents didn’t even tell me they were coming. And I slipped up a little on some lines here and there, but it was all right. I’m sure I’ll probably mess up again. You do brain freezes, or you zone out sometimes, but we’ll see what happens.”

Thursday night’s sell-out crowd attracted a mix of obsessive “Rent” fans — some of whom had seen the musical upwards of 50 times — and rabid ‘NSYNC fans making their first foray into theater. Many of the fans questioned, some of whom had traveled as far as from Dallas and Detroit to see the show, were attending for the second time that week, and had seen Fatone’s debut on Monday. The overall response? Fairly positive.

‘NSYNC fans like Kate, 18, said that he sounded better singing in the theater than in concert. “It’s more mature,” she said. “I liked it a lot better than his kiddie concerts.”

“Rent” fans like Nicki, 19, said that she had low expectations for Fatone and was pleasantly surprised. Not that his performance completely converted her. ” ‘NSYNC could get on a bus with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and drive off a tall mountain for all I care,” she said. “But I wasn’t as disappointed as I thought I would be.”

If anything, the conversion will most likely be the other way around, “Rent” fans predicted. “I was actually really impressed with Joey,” Andrea, 19, said. “I couldn’t picture him at first being Mark, because Mark is usually a dorky kid, but he pulled it off. I just think that this is different than ‘NSYNC, and maybe it’ll convert a few ‘NSYNC fans, which is cool because this is really an eye-opening play.”

“I spent most of my college years sleeping on the streets for cheap tickets for ‘Rent,’ ” said Krista, 25, who considers herself equally rabid about the group as she is the musical. “I can’t even count all the guys I’ve seen play Mark. And honestly, Joey is probably the second best I’ve seen, compared to the original. He was really, really natural on stage, and for this being his first show was phenomenal. Usually Justin and J.C. are the singers in the band, and you don’t hear that much from Joey, which is unfortunate, because he can really sing.”

‘NSYNC fans were also happy to note that Fatone had incorporated at least one signature dance move into “Rent”‘s choreography — when he sings the lyric about “any passing fad” in “La Vie Boheme,” Fatone busts out a bit from the “Pop” video. “It’s the little, you know, ’80s/’90s breakdance kinda thing,” he said. “It was just my own interpretation, you know, to do whatever, so that’s what I did. That’s what came out.”

Even diehard “Rent” fans were willing to put aside rock elitism and allowed that Fatone managed to make the switch from pop to rock singing quite effectively. Fatone said that he thought the transition would be rough on his voice at first.

“We don’t have ear monitors, so it’s kind of hard to hear everything,” he said. “And a lot of it is over-articulation so people in the back can obviously understand what you’re saying. I thought it was going to be pretty bad, but it’s been holding up pretty well, actually. I’m very shocked at myself.”

“If he would have opened the show, with the original cast, the Tony Award would have gone to him,” Brandon, 18, said. “He’s got the voice, he’s got the looks, he’s got everything. This is the best thing they could have done for ‘Rent.’ ”

So much so, Fatone got a standing ovation — and he didn’t even notice. “It was weird, because I was not really paying attention that much,” Fatone said. “My parents kinda told me what happened, because I was like, I was just, ‘I finally got through one show!’ It was overwhelming.

“A couple of people have told me it felt like I’ve been doing it for a long time,” he continued. “So it’s been pretty interesting. It’s scary that I’m kinda relaxed, which is weird in a sense, because I mean, every time before I go out, I am a little bit nervous. And it’s like, ‘Let’s just do it,’ and the minute I get out there, I’m fine.”

Fatone’s stint in “Rent” runs through December 22.