“I was in a professional tap company when I was a kid,” Evan Ruggiero says. “I got the bug at this young age: ‘Wow, this is so cool, performing for people, live audiences.’ But I really took it to the next level shortly after I lost my leg.”
The New Jersey native was 19 and in college studying musical theater when he was diagnosed with cancer in his right leg, which eventually had to be amputated above the knee. “I went through 16 months of chemo, a total of 13 surgeries,” he says.
A less determined person might have taken that as a sign to try their hand at something other than dancing. Ruggiero, on the other hand, refers to that moment in his life, just over a decade ago, as simply “a little bit of a setback.”
He was particularly inspired to get back on his feet after learning more about Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, an acclaimed, one-legged tap dancer in the mid-20th century who was a frequent guest on The Ed Sullivan Show. “So I had a peg leg made for me,” he says, “and I just started to tap dance again.”
Ruggiero posted a video online showing him tap dancing with his peg leg, which led to invitations to perform on stages and festivals across the country, including a segment on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “I kind of just rode that wave for a little while. But I always loved musical theater, and I always loved singing and acting. And I just kept trying to find ways to get back into that.”
Days before the pandemic settled in last year, Ruggiero auditioned for the new Olney Theatre production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The 31-year-old had long dreamed of playing the Beast, even acting out the part when he was only five: “I used to run around my house, stomping up and down the stairs, yelling, ‘It’s forbidden!'”
He soon learned that his childhood dream was going to come true — eventually. The production, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and its non-traditional approach to casting finally opened last week, a full year after originally scheduled.
“We have a lot of inclusiveness and diversity in the production, and I am just so happy to be a part of it, and to be sharing this story with people who have never seen the show,” he says.
“If you look at the movie, the Beast is a wildebeest; he’s this animal. And Belle is this brunette, skinny white girl. And then you come to our production, and you see Jade Jones, a plus-sized Black woman, as Belle, and me, being an amputee, as Beast. And kids are just like, ‘What? Wow! That guy has one leg! Oh my gosh.’ They’re really engaged in the story. And at the end, they’re just cheering and standing up.”
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through Jan. 2, 2022. Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Md. Tickets are $42 to $90. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.
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