Theatre lures musical Mann

The world of music seduced John Mann into an affair that's still going strong after 22 years. But recently, he's found himself drawn back to an old love: acting for the stage.

For the past two decades, Mann has been known primarily as the lead singer of and one of the principal songwriters for the group Spirit of the West. Back in the early '80s, he was a theatre student at Studio 58, but he dropped out after a year. "I got involved in the band," he explains. "You know, it was immediate. There weren't years of training ahead of me. We were just instantly working, making money, and performing our own material."

Spirit of the West is still active; the group released its newest CD, Star Trails, last July. But everybody in the band, including Mann, has kids now and nobody wants to tour as much as they used to. That's why he is testing his talents elsewhere.

As we speak, we are sitting in the green room underneath the stage at the Stanley Theatre. Upstairs, carpenters are banging together the set for Miss Saigon, which will run from this Wednesday (May 25) until July 10. Miss Saigon retells the story of Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly setting it in the bar culture of Saigon just before the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. Mann has been cast in the central role of a pimp who is known as the Engineer.

He started to get back into acting in 1998 when local agent Coreen Mayrs, who he went to high school with, phoned and asked if he'd like to audition for the TV show Millennium. Logistics prevented Mann from trying for that job, but the offer intrigued him and he was soon racking up acting credits on a number of series, including Da Vinci's Inquest, Cold Squad, and Battlestar Galactica.

There's been something missing, though. "I enjoy film and TV for a number of reasons," he says. "But it's a different thing. Sometimes your big scene is at the end of the night and everybody's sittin' there goin', 'Okay, we only have one take for this.'"

Mann has been drawn back to the interactive vitality of the theatre, and directors have enthusiastically embraced him. Last year, he played Macheath in Vancouver Opera's production of The Threepenny Opera and starred in Joni Mitchell: River at the Vancouver Playhouse. The Engineer is one of the juiciest roles in recent musical-theatre history.

Asked why stage directors hire him, Mann replies: "I think it's because I've spent 22 years on the stage and spent it with a high- energy band; I understand what it means to fill a stage, what it means to own it. I don't think I'm full of technical prowess; I wasn't at Studio 58 long enough to really learn anything. I'm just bringing with me that attitude that when you're on-stage you're alive."