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Fever Pitch

James Carpinello's quixotic quest to become the next Travolta -- eight times a week.

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You can tell by the way James Carpinello uses his walk that he's a woman's man, no time to talk. The city's breakin' and everybody's shakin' and he's . . . just drinking a cup of coffee.

The star of Broadway's new Saturday Night Fever, which opens October 21, is sitting in a Times Square diner in front of a sign that reads come up to the register! don't just leave your check at the table! His gray, long-sleeved T-shirt bulges like an action figure's. All of his features are oversize -- big eyes, huge lips, a high forehead, and even higher hair. It's called a stage face.

How is he feeling today? "Exhausted," he declares, rubbing bloodshot eyes. "My girlfriend and I spent a lot of time together over the weekend." He winks.

Carpinello is 24. He weighed 185 pounds when he started rehearsals this summer and is now at 150; his mouth sticks out a little from his face like a horse's. But when the would-be matinee idol leads the unitard-encased, rhinestone-beaded Saturday Night Fever cast in the bus stop, the hustle, the Mediterranean rope hustle, whatever -- it's awfully hard not to think everyone in polyester. Carpinello says that Travolta, the original Tony Manero, is his idol. "God, I get so excited thinking about him," he gushes. "I'm even the same age that he was when he did it!"

This is Carpinello's Big Break. His few previous roles were mostly beefcake showcases: Rocky in the L.A. production of The Rocky Horror Show; Big Man on Campus in last year's Off Broadway cult hit Stupid Kids. Directed by Lord of the Dance's Arlene Phillips, Saturday Night Fever made its debut in London last year. The producers recast the show with Americans, holding more than 200 cattle calls around the country before they found Carpinello. "They even passed up Joey Lawrence for me," he says with some satisfaction.

But already, sniping about Carpinello's talents has reached "Page Six," which reported last week that a poor Today show performance "has the theater world wondering if he'll soon be looking for a good restaurant to work in." Carpinello's publicist, Jennifer Glaisek of PMK, dismisses the jibe: "We're not going to even dignify it with a comment."

Today, at least, he's still on top of the world. He swings open the door to the Minskoff Theatre's lobby, where gray-haired women in sweat suits are lined up to buy tickets for tonight's preview. "Yo, ladies," whispers Carpinello, gliding by. "Tonight I'm gonna give you the Fever!" A lot of the women turn and stare. He cockily turns up the collar of his leather jacket, but then frowns uncertainly: "I hope I don't come across as a boy toy."


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