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John Fredo on the art of getting it right

John Fredo wanted to get it right.

So, as a skinny 16-year-old growing up with nine siblings in a small Victorian house in South Buffalo, he slipped on his tap shoes and practiced his steps on the hardwood floor of his downstairs hallway.

"I had to get whatever I wanted to do right so the next time I went into dance class or into rehearsal for a show, I knew what I was doing," said Fredo, now 59. "And I didn't care if my brother's friends were laughing at me on the porch."

Besides, he added, "that was the place that made the best sound."

Sure, his brother's friends laughed. But Fredo got it right.

For Fredo, the veteran Buffalo performer who directs MusicalFare Theatre's current production of the tap-driven musical revue "Sophisticated Ladies," clacking his heels on those hardwood floors was the only thing that mattered.

He carried that commitment with him into the Buffalo theater scene of the 1970s and '80s. He carried it into the dance scene of New York City and the film world of Los Angeles. And he brought it back Buffalo in the early 1990s, where he soon became one of the most versatile and sought-after Buffalo performers, starring in everything from "Sweeney Todd" to "Death of a Salesman."

And now, with dozens of local shows, international tours and a few TV shows and commercials under his belt, Fredo is turning his attention to shaping the next generation of local performers. Not that he's done with the stage yet -- he will star in the Kavinoky Theatre's production of "A View from the Bridge" in March.

He is bringing experience working with dance legends Maurice Hines, Mercedes Ellington and others, along with his own turn in an early production of "Sophisticated Ladies," to bear on MusicalFare's production.

The show, with music direction by jazz pianist and Ellington Orchestra veteran George Caldwell, features seven local performers performing famous tunes by Duke Ellington and executing dance steps choreographed by Fredo and his longtime collaborator Alexis Wilson. It runs through March 5.

Director John Fredo works with cast members London Lee, left, Cecelia Barron and Ben Michael Moran during rehearsal for MusicalFare Theatre's production of "Sophisticated Ladies." (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

He's got rhythm

When Fredo walks into any space – whether it's the stage at the MusicalFare Theatre or Perks Café on Elmwood Avenue, where we recently met for coffee – he seems to have recently stepped off a train from 1938.

He has a graceful bearing and an anachronistic way of speaking that wouldn't sound out of place in a Busby Berkeley movie.

"That's me, baby," he said, when asked to reflect on how he tap-danced his way from his first-floor hallway onto the Buffalo theater scene.

And that speech, especially when talking about dance, is as rhythmic as a drum machine.

"John has his own vocabulary," said MusicalFare's marketing and production coordinator Doug Weyand, who has worked with Fredo on more than a dozen shows. "When he's teaching choreography, he'll say, 'Baby, I want more sha-bah-da-POW here.' Or, 'A little more bah-bah-bah-BOW on the doo.' Or, 'Baby, in this moment can I slide into it in a shooo kind of way? You've learned what he's talking about over time."

That vocabulary was on full display on a recent Wednesday night rehearsal in MusicalFare Theatre, when Fredo led his cast through a particularly tricky dance number as band members Bobby Militello, Caldwell and others warmed up. There aren't enough letters on the keyboard to capture the Louis Armstrong-brand of scat that Fredo was dropping on the cast.

While he was performing slow motion version of the steps he had choreographed for the cast, Fredo couldn't suppress the smile on his face.

"I don't want to be 'the teacher' when I'm giving choreography," he said of his directorial style, "but I do want to let them know that part of the reason this is happening is because there's joy involved."

The joy in his step

Joy has been a defining characteristic of Fredo's career, whether he was performing on a concrete platform at the edge of the Indian Ocean for a Sapporo Beer commercial or the earliest dance lessons he got from his mother, a former tap-dancer who competed in dance contests with Fredo's father as a young woman.

"If I had to ask her what a buck-and-wing was, she could actually show me in her house-slippers," he said.

When he was growing up, Fredo exploited those home dance lessons to clinch a role in a high school production of "Anything Goes" at Mount Mercy Academy. That led to dance classes at a South Buffalo studio, which he paid for by doing construction work for his dance teacher. That, in turn, led to a role in a regional youth production of "West Side Story" at Amherst High School.

Then Fredo's career took off. A choreographer who saw him in "West Side Story" pointed him toward Alleyway Theatre's founder Neal Radice, for whom he performed in 26 productions of musicals in the span of a few years.

High on his exposure in Buffalo, Fredo took off for New York, where he soon found himself swept up in the tap-dance revival spearheaded by Maurice Hines and Mercedes Ellington. He was a founding member of Balletap USA, which later morphed into DancEllington. He put his construction know-how to use on part-time jobs and also taught dance for three years. One of his students, Savion Glover, went on to become the preeminent American tap dancer of the era.

With DancEllington, he toured around the globe in a production of "Harlem Suite." That took him across Asia and Europe and finally landed him in Los Angeles, where he worked a series of construction jobs and landed a few commercial and sitcom roles, including guest spots on "My Two Dads."

He returned to Buffalo in 1991 to take care of his ailing mother, and he's been a fixture here ever since.

"He was kind of our go-to guy for musical theater, because there weren't a lot of guys in town who were that age who could do the things he could do," Weyand said. "You needed a guy who could sing and tap like a fiend and dance and be charming and have the audience love them? That was John Fredo."

In recent years, Fredo's skill set and ambition has grown far beyond musical theater. His performances in straight plays, from Edward Albee's "The Goat; Or Who Is Sylvia" to "Death of a Salesman," have earned consistent raves. Next, he said, he wants to direct a play.

Asked if regret about not returning to the national stage ever nags at him, Fredo's response was resolute: He is one of the few Buffalo actors who puts his living together largely from the stage.

"There's not an actor in New York that has been able to go from great roles in some of America's greatest plays, to dancing and singing in another place, to being able to impart my experience to others," he said. "There are so many people that I came up with that, honest to God, they're all back working in their corporate jobs because of the odds. That's why I don't regret it. I've got a great life here."

He gives credit for that life to Buffalo's theater community, which continues to provide opportunities for Fredo to to get it right -- both onstage and off.

"You can't put a finger on John. He's just his own animal, and there's no one like him in Buffalo," said MusicalFare founder and director Randall Kramer. "Johnny just keeps getting better and better."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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