In high school, Hayden Milanes liked to go across the street to the performing arts center where the biggest actors came through town. He'd sit along the Hillsborough River and think.
It was hard to see how his future would play out, but he knew acting would be a part of it. Milanes was honing his skills at the Howard W. Blake School of the Arts. In his senior year, he even performed on the big stage at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, taking honors for a duet in the Florida State Thespian Festival.
That was his last time on that stage, until now. Milanes has played Frankie Valli in the national tour of Jersey Boys for three years. Starting Tuesday, he'll circle back to where his acting career took off, performing once again in Tampa.
"It's a heartfelt dream of mine," said Milanes, 28.
Milanes grew up in Town 'N Country where his youth was devoted to playing baseball. He had no interest in acting, but he was running with a bad crowd and getting in trouble, he said, and wanted to go to a school outside his zone.
He heard about Blake's magnet program for performing arts. He watched Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men and copied every move, word and emotion. He got into the program and started working with his teachers, James Rayfield and Eric Davis.
"I think one really good thing about that kind of serious arts education that you get at the magnet school is it's a very realistic view of the professional theater world," said Davis, now artistic director at Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg. "I think some students really found an inspiration to pursue that, and it sort of lit a fire under them to make it happen."
The first show Milanes did was A Midsummer Night's Dream, where he played ensemble horned guy No. 2. He sang in the chorus of Lucky Stiff, then sang solo as the Tin Man in The Wiz. But it really clicked when he played the lead in a debut rock opera at Blake called Lotus Blooming in a Sea of Fire.
"It was then I realized that I really couldn't hide from the fact that this was what I was meant to do," he said.
Milanes worked at Walt Disney World, where he acted in a production of Finding Nemo with his old teacher, Davis. Around that time, people started telling him he'd be perfect for the part of Frankie Valli. He took a job on a cruise ship and in the off time worked with a vocal coach. Then, he decided to make the move to New York and audition for Jersey Boys.
He got the part right away.
"All of that preparation and all of that work with my voice teacher kind of met the opportunity," he said. "You know what they say. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. And that's exactly what happened."
He set off on the road, telling the story of the friendship and struggles of Valli and the Four Seasons, but he never got to do the show in Tampa. The tour had just left here when Milanes joined the cast.
When he performs this week, he figures the crowd will be full of his friends, his family, his teachers.
They'll hear him sing Sunday Kind of Love, Cry for Me, Walk Like a Man. And of course, Working My Way Back to You.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow her on Twitter at @stephhayes.