NEW YORK -- Joshua Dela Cruz has gone from having a genie as a sidekick to a bright blue puppy — and he couldn’t be happier.
The actor is the host of a new reboot of the pre-school TV show “Blue’s Clues” and hopes people who grew up on the original come to check it out with their kids.
“Now parents get to share a piece of their childhood, which is really exciting and only makes the learning that's happening onscreen that much stronger,” he said.
Dela Cruz comes to Nickelodeon’s “Blue’s Clues & You!” after a long stint in the Broadway musical “Aladdin,” where he understudied Iago as well as the title character and went on as Aladdin for three months.
“There was still something more that I wanted at that point. I’d been with the show for just about five years. And I wanted to use the gifts and the skills that I had learned to help someone,” he said. “And my agent sent me an audition for ‘Blue's Clues.’”
The original Nickelodeon show ran from 1996 to 2007, with a human host solving a puzzle by deciphering the meaning of Blue’s barks and paw prints — with assistance from young viewers chiming in with their thoughts.
The reboot hews close to the original, with the return of characters like Mailbox, Thinking Chair, Slippery Soap, Shovel and of course Blue, though the pup is being rendered by computer graphics. “She is furrier, she's more lovable,” he said.
Other changes include the addition of Handy Dandy Guitar and an update to Handy Dandy Notebook, which now has smartphone technology, allowing Dela Cruz and Blue to receive emails and video calls.
Former hosts Steve (Steve Burns) and Joe (Donovan Patton) returned for the first episode to help welcome Dela Cruz as the host. Burns helped pick Dela Cruz from an audition process that included over 3,000 hopefuls. He is the first Asian-American actor to become Blue’s companion, a responsibility not lost on him.
“I was talking to my friend and they said their kid was like, ‘Hey, he looks like me.’ And man, that hits you like a ton of bricks,” he said. “It hits you like a ton of bricks.”
Traci Paige Johnson, co-creator and co-executive producer of the original “Blue’s Clues” and the reboot, helped pick Dela Cruz, purposely widening the search to include Broadway performers because they can sing and dance and endure a grueling schedule.
She and her team went to see him in “Aladdin” and were wowed by what they saw him do onstage. But they were even more impressed by what they saw offstage.
“Some kids were backstage and he was just so lovely with them, so genuine. He got down to their level and spoke to them,” she said. “He just felt like the whole package.”
The 30-year-old Dela Cruz thinks “Blue’s Clues” is different than other shows geared toward children because it honestly asks audience members for help and it doesn’t ask them to be silent consumers.
“It's more of a transfer of power and authority to the home viewer, which is something as a kid, you don't usually get,” he said. “You're usually told to be quiet and listen. Our show gives us the opportunity as kids to voice our opinions and make mistakes, because that's a part of learning.”
Appearing on “Blue’s Clues” completes an unlikely circle for Dela Cruz, who as a youngster watched the show with his younger sister. The family didn’t have cable but whenever they’d sleep over at their aunt’s house, the pair would eagerly watch the blue dog. Dela Cruz even credits the catchy “Mail Song” with spurring his interest in singing.
He grew up in New Milford, New Jersey, with no intention of becoming an actor. “I had a very strong imagination growing up and I was the only boy sandwiched between two girls, so I would just kind of play by myself all the time and put myself in these wild situations and dream up these big stories.”
Advice from his older sister led him to audition for the high school musical and it was theater that helped him overcome his aversion to public speaking. Dela Cruz earned a bachelor’s in musical theater from Montclair State University in 2011.
His additional credits include “Here Lies Love” off-Broadway and Onscreen, he's appeared in ABC's “Time After Time” and CBS' “Bull.”
It was at college when he met his wife, the stage and TV actress Amanda Dela Cruz, who is currently appearing off-Broadway in “Jersey Boys.” Though he’s often away filming his show in Toronto, he’ll slip a picture of her — and their beloved dog Ollie — into his scripts.
“I'll look at those pictures and just kind of remember home,” he said. “I just get a little bit homesick. And when I see them, it just kind of brightens me up.”
He marvels that now he’s the host of a show he enjoyed years ago with his little sister, who is expecting her first child. (“All she wanted for her birthday one year was Handy Dandy Notebook,” he said.) When he told her he had landed the gig as the host of the “Blue’s Clues” reboot, it was a shock.
“It's not something that any of us really ever saw as a thing that could ever happen in our futures,” he said. “It's really wild.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits