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'Viva Laughlin' isn't the same old song and dance
Tampa native Carter Jenkins debuts tonight in the unusual musical drama, which is a big gamble for CBS. Jenkins also is taking a chance - on singing and dancing.
By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
Published October 18, 2007
Viva Laughlin A preview of Viva Laughlin airs at 10 tonight on WTSP-Ch. 10. The regular series airs Sundays at 8 p.m. Grade: B+
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He's in a TV show with song-and-dance numbers, featuring a Tony award-winning, bona fide Hollywood star, Hugh Jackman.
But 16-year-old Tampa native Carter Jenkins has a confession about his debut tonight on CBS's biggest fall gamble, the musical drama Viva Laughlin.
The whole singing thing? Not his strongest skill. Or dancing, either.
No problem. Laughlin follows the precedent set by the BBC's Viva Blackpool, in which actors sing along with tunes by stars like Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones who often drown out their vocal efforts.
"This whole unique way of telling the story, we've gotten the hang of it," said Jenkins, calling Monday from a Los Angeles library, where he was studying with a tutor. "Every song I've had to sing was already on my iPod. I love the music, and I think it's found its rhythm . . . no pun intended."
Jenkins sounded more confident than during our first meeting, at a CBS press party in Los Angeles. Then, he said he struggled while auditioning to McFadden and Whitehead's '70s hit Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now.
"I did see a guy who helped me with my singing, but I don't think I got much better," the lanky actor said, laughing a little. "It was kind of awkward and nerve-racking . . . but I just sort of went for it; that's all I could do."
Which is what producers are doing with Viva Laughlin, an adaptation of the hit British series. Laughlin falls somewhere between a full-on musical, where actors break into song repeatedly, and a drama where background music simply spices up the action.
In the show's opening, British import Lloyd Owen sings along with Viva Las Vegas in a ragged, Americanized baritone, mostly drowned out by Presley's classic vocal. Later, when Jackman who is an executive producer of the show appears as a self-obsessed casino owner, his singing dominates the Stones' Sympathy for the Devil.
It's a tentative approach. Songs float in as background music or tunes blasted on the radio, but stars eventually bust into dance moves. Other characters act as if there's nothing unusual about people jumping up on casino tables and singing their hearts out.
Some say it's absurd enough to put off people who don't like musicals. Yet it doesn't have enough performance to satisfy people who do. But executive producer Bob Lowry is unapologetic.
"What we are doing is addressing all of these stories as if music did not exist," said Lowry, who also created Showtime's Hank Azaria dramedy, Huff. "Because if you were to remove the music, we still want to have a very entertaining, dramatic piece, so we need to have a solid story to tell. And then, the music we use to enhance that is sort of an emotional soundtrack of our characters."
So when Jenkins' character - a shy, underappreciated son to Owen's blustery casino owner - takes on the Queen/David Bowie duet Under Pressure, he's talking about how his character feels while straining to nail those Freddie Mercury screams.
"Music is actually a tool I use as an actor," Jenkins said. "When you listen to a song, it sends you right into an emotional place, which can help your performance."
Jenkins may look familiar: His most recent pre-Laughlin role was playing precocious loner Miles on NBC's sci-fi thriller Surface, but he also has appeared on CSI: Miami, Lost, House, The 4400 and The Bernie Mac Show.
Jenkins took a route to a TV acting career followed by other Tampa natives, including JoAnna Garcia (Reba), Brittany Snow (American Dreams) and Shawn Pyfrom (Desperate Housewives).
The path: Start out in community theater and/or commercials, get a connection who helps you find work in Los Angeles or New York, then move to the big city with at least part of your family, to see if there's really something to this acting thing.
Jenkins and his mother, Mary, went to Los Angeles about five years ago for a two-week stay. Before long, he had an agent and job offers, prompting the family - including dad Eric, sister Tiffany and brother Renneker - to move west.
"I was feeling that pressure . . . 'cause if I wasn't doing well, I was thinking, like, we relocated my whole family just for me," he said, emphasizing that the pressure was mostly self-imposed. "Looking back, it was pretty risky to do all that relocating when there was no guarantee I was going to have a career."
Low-key enough that he'd sneak off the Surface set in Wilmington, N.C., to meet girls in secret, Jenkins shares another characteristic with young actors from Tampa finding success in Hollywood: a lack of Lindsay/Britney/Paris-style public dysfunction.
Pyfrom, who knows Jenkins, guessed that comes from hanging with actor friends who have a more balanced perspective on fame.
"To be honest, I rarely talk about work when I hang out with my (actor) friends," said Pyfrom, 21, who had already earned roles on 7th Heaven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Touched By an Angel by age 14. "We know this is our job; it's just what we do. Even though it may be held in higher regard than some other jobs."
Ask Jenkins about the most difficult part of Hollywood for a teen, and he'll mention rejection. "I heard an interview with Ron Howard . . . He was saying how the teenagers are already so confused and so much is changing, and, like, you're so like paranoid about what people are thinking of you," he said. "But on top of that, you're auditioning for things and being rejected all the time. And it brings way more rejection that you haven't seen (before). . . It's difficult."
Most actors Jenkins' age are looking for the next Disney or Nickelodeon-related series. But in his polite way, Jenkins says he's beyond that now.
"I sort of consciously made a decision not to do that kind of work anymore. Because if you do that, it's hard to break out of it if you want to move on. . . And I want a career that lasts a long time."
If Viva Laughlin hits it big, he'll keep playing a complicated high school kid - even though, as a homeschooled actor, he has never actually attended a high school.
And a hit would mean something more for Jenkins, who's looking forward to buying his first car.
"What kind of car? That depends on how the show does," he said. "I hope it's a hit - I'd like to get a nice (one), some sort of used BMW."