November 29, 1999 12:00 PM

As a kid in suburban Albany, N.Y., James Carpinello hid on the floor of the family car so his pals wouldn’t see him going to dance practice. “It was horrible,” recalls the 24-year-old actor. “You got called all kinds of names.”

Still, it may have been good prep. Now starring as Tony Manero in the new Broadway musical version of Saturday Night Fever, Carpinello is struggling not only with comparisons to John Travolta’s legendary portrayal of a Brooklyn dance-club king in the 1977 film but also with the wisecracks of New York City’s theater critics. “He is so out of his depth, he couldn’t reach the surface with a fireman’s ladder,” hissed one. Another called his dancing “uneasy,” and The New York Times said he seems to be “counting off steps in his head.” Ouch.

His response? Fuhgeddaboutit. “I don’t dance for critics,” says Carpinello, who beat out hundreds of actors—including former Blossom stud Joey Lawrence—for the role. And, despite the barbs, Fever is a monster hit. “Every night 1,800 people are dancing in the aisles when the show ends. I dance for them.”

The son of Anthony, 51, a state supreme court judge, and mom Sharon, 52, a state mental-health official, James’s first performances were with sister Amy, now 20, in the family basement. “As the oldest, James was always the director and star,” says his father. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1997, Carpinello moved to L.A. to star in a stage version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Since landing Fever in April—he “cried like a baby” at the news—he has dropped 30 lbs. from his now 155-lb. frame, thanks to eight weeks of eight-hours-a-day dance training and aerobics.

Carpinello’s colleagues credit him for taking on the Manero mantle. “For what he does, and the shoes he has to fill, he’s doing amazingly well,” says costar Orfeh. Still, “I won’t be doing Grease next,” says Carpinello. “I’ll pass on that.”

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