CSUF alumnus takes a shot at the first national tour of ‘Hamilton’

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Rubén J. Carbajal graduated with 10 others in 2015 from the CSUF BFA program.
Courtesy of Sonia Carbajal

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had a chronological error in regard to Carbajal’s work in “In the Heights.” It was corrected March 9, 2017 at 1:10 p.m.

Rubén J. Carbajal began his time at CSUF with roles at the Clayes Performing Arts Center but come Friday, he will take the stage at the San Francisco SHN Orpheum Theatre in the critically-acclaimed Broadway musical “Hamilton” as part of its first ever national tour.

He will star as John Laurens in the first act and Philip Hamilton in the second. Just like Alexander Hamilton in the play, Rubén Carbajal is well prepared for the role and is not throwing away his shot.

“It’s really exciting for me. I get to have double the fun, really. I get to explore two different characters,” Rubén Carbajal said. “Philip Hamilton when I have to come out and be 9 years old and then come back later and be 19, that’s the beauty of theatre.”

During his time at CSUF, Carbajal’s professors Jim Volz and Eve Himmelheber described him as someone who didn’t continuously have something to say, but instead listened and gave input when he has something to contribute. They also noted his ability to take direction.

“He’s the kind of student that you want in a college classroom because he brings his life experience and a sense of purpose and family into the classroom. He’s not one of those guys who sits at the front row and says, ‘Look at me, look at me.’ He’s the guy who sits in the back row and kind of takes it all in and looks for a way where he can contribute in a significant way,” said Jim Volz, professor of theater history.

The CSUF Theatre BFA program begins with around 70 to 80 people, but with cuts in freshman through junior years, that number dwindles, Himmelheber said. In Rubén Carbajal’s case, he ended up graduating with 10 others in 2015 according to Himmelheber.

“The program is strenuous. It’s difficult to get into, but at the end of the day, the professors want the performers to be good,” Carbajal said. “They want you to be your best.”

During his first two years, Rubén Carbajal said he had backup plans in case he didn’t continue to pass the cuts in the program. But he never had to go down another path.

“He’s nothing but professional. He’s really fun to work with and always very focused during rehearsals,” said Brian Whitehill, who graduated with Rubén Carbajal and is currently on tour with “Mamma Mia.”

Fellow graduating Chelle Denton was attracted to Carbajal’s humorous personality and academic ambitions. They have been friends since their freshman year and have been dating for almost two years.

Denton said it is hard on their relationship as she resides in Montebello, teaching and performing locally. But by mastering FaceTime and other long-distance communication, they’ve made it work, Denton said. She noted the fact that his touring, specifically with “Hamilton,” helps too.

He has performed in two productions of “In the Heights,” a play created by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The first time, he played Sonny at the Chance Theatre in Anaheim. The second time, at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre in Claremont as the lead character Usnavi.

“When he did the second one where he actually plays Usnavi, I was a little nervous because I thought, ‘Does my son know how to rap?’” said Sonia Carbajal, Rubén Carabjal’s mother.

Himmelheber, who said the show is an “absolute phenomena,” said it could take years before she’s lucky enough to see it.

“I think he really looks back on when he was the one sitting out in the audience at these phenomenal shows or musicals. Whether it be community or big regional shows at the Pantages, he gets to think back on the boy that he was, being able to look up to all those people on stage and getting the chance to do that now is, I think, what keeps the theater bug in him. It’s what he craves,” Denton said.

Rubén Carbajal’s character Philip Hamilton plays a key role in the rise and fall of one of America’s founding fathers in the show. He begins the second act playing the character at 9 years old and later again as a young man. As Alexander Hamilton’s personal life affects public opinion of him, Philip Hamilton is willing to fight and die for his father’s honor.

Rubén Carbajal may not have experienced such extreme circumstances, but like his character, family often comes first. When he isn’t working, he spends time with his mother, father and two sisters.

It was his family that ultimately encouraged him to pursue theater in college. Rubén Carbajal began acting at 5 years old in commercials and in television and film at the age of 9.

It was in high school that he began considering theater as a potential career path he said. Originally, his father suggested he major in engineering. However, when his mother overheard him talking to a relative about pursuing engineering in college, she said it didn’t sound like something he really wanted to do. They discussed it with his director at the time and ultimately agreed with his choice to pursue theater.

Volz, Ramont and Himmelheber echoed the sentiment that Rubén Carbajal should be grateful as he embraces the highs and lows and enjoys the journey of touring with a Broadway show.

“It’s always still crazy to him and to everybody else that his life is this interesting and exciting, but it absolutely is,” Denton said.

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