Annually, the Clive Barnes Foundation offers an award and cash prize of $5,000 to two talented young artists in theater and dance. One of the recipients chosen was Montclair State University alumnus, Evan Ruggiero, for his wonderful performance in the off-broadway production “Bastard Jones.” Clive Barnes Foundation President Valerie Taylor-Barnes presented him with the honor last Monday at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, New York.
Ruggiero thought it was an incredible honor just to be nominated for the award, and it was an honor to share it with his “Bastard Jones” co-star Elena Wang.
“When I heard my being announced as the winner I was in complete shock,” Ruggiero said. “I became very emotional and thought about the journey I had been on leading up to that very moment.”
The show’s author, lyricist and director Marc Acito commented that Ruggiero’s rise to stardom came from accepting his prosthesis and how he overcame it.
“Had he not suffered the ordeal he went through losing his leg, I imagined he would have risen through the ranks in the chorus,” Acito said. “He probably would have a few Broadway shows under his belt. Instead. the strength of his character was forged in trauma, distinguishing him as an extraordinary human being.”
Acito added that he loves him like family as they are both Italians from New Jersey and jokingly called him a “goofball.”
Originally a role for a two-legged male, Ruggiero plays the lead Tom Jones in the rock musical comedy, which is based on 1963’s “A History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” by Henry Fielding. The story behind “Bastard Jones” centers on a man with a big heart who struggles to find true love. His “sexcapades” and mischievous nature stems from not knowing about his parents.
Playing Tom Jones has been one of the most exciting challenges of Ruggiero’s career to date.
“The story of Tom Jones ties in with accepting others for their differences and that everyone deserves to find happiness,” Ruggiero said. “That sounds a lot like my everyday life and struggles as an amputee, but to be able to play this character on stage in New York City felt like a tremendous accomplishment for me. It was seven years ago that my leg was amputated, and I continued to follow my path and dream of performing in New York on stage. Tom Jones, despite all of the obstacles that had been thrown in his way – being abandoned as a baby, banished, and ultimately jailed and sentenced to hang – still continues that pursuit to happiness.”
While pursuing his bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theatre during fall 2009, Ruggiero was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that develops within the bones. Ruggiero was 19 years old at the time, experiencing pain on the lower half of his right leg. As a dancer, Ruggiero was terrified for not only continuing his college education at Montclair State but for the future.
Associate professor of theater and dance Clay James was a father figure to Ruggiero in and outside the classroom. James often visited his student in the hospital while recovering from multiple surgeries and chemotherapy. James encouraged Ruggiero to focus on his recovery and ensured him that he will be back on track to graduation.
As he learned how to adapt to performing with an amputated limb, Ruggiero recreated the tap dancing terminology to better suit his needs. He mentioned that in traditional tap dancing, a time step is traditionally ‘step-hop-step-flap-step, step-hop-step-flap-step.’ To accommodate his peg leg, Ruggiero changed it to ‘peg-hop-peg-flap-peg, step-peg-toe-heel-peg-heel.’ Ruggiero continued to use this type of vocabulary today when teaching his students dance as well. He has them speak it before even tapping, which enables them to understand how to modify and execute the steps.
Another professor and director of many productions on campus that assisted Ruggiero’s growth as a versatile performer was Mark Hardy. Hardy cast Ruggiero as the lead in the Andrew Lippa production “Wild Party,” which was coincidentally his directorial debut.
“I think the fact that Evan had to fight so hard to come back from such a devastating, and potentially career-ending, illness has led him to tackle challenges with zeal and delight,” Hardy said. “I think he appreciates the privilege of working in the theater more than most because he faced it almost being taken away from him and refused to accept that. I have seldom worked with an actor so completely focused on doing good work. It’s a heroic story, yes, but I remain a fan because he is such a great talent and a blast to work with.”
Ruggiero’s inspirational story eventually led to one prosperous opportunity after another, including a guest spot on the Ellen Degeneres talk show in Los Angeles, California. Ruggiero was able to perform with his right peg leg and received a $10,000 check courtesy of Shutterfly.
Ruggiero’s passion for the performing arts has allowed him to literally and figuratively move forward, one shuffle at a time.