When an actor takes an epic leap
Here is a common misconception about theater: the best actors live and work in New York and L.A.
Not every actor wants to dwell in the cutthroat worlds of Broadway and Hollywood. Not every actor wants to deal with agents, producers who pigeonhole them and divas who throw things backstage.
Some want normal lives with snowblowers, backyards and kids' soccer games. Some receive profound satisfaction from diving deep into the great works of theater rather than seeing their names in neon.
This explains why perhaps the greatest performing leap in American theater this stage season is occurring in Milwaukee. Lee Ernst opened the Milwaukee Rep 2010-'11 season playing the emcee in "Cabaret," and he is closing it portraying Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," which debuts Friday.
The characters and shows are radically different in style and tone, although both stories are on tracks that lead to tragedy. Ernst may be the only professional actor to ever play the emcee and Willy in the same season.
Those of us who have enjoyed Ernst throughout his three decade stage career in Wisconsin would expect to see him tackle Arthur Miller's iconic portrait of the American salesman. He's been a sculptor of the most recognizable characters from western theater and American culture, including Frank Lloyd Wright.
We never expected to see him singing and prancing as the leering observer of the coming of the Third Reich in "Cabaret." We didn't even know he could sing.
"I've never been a featured singer on stage," Ernst said during a recent chat before a "Death of a Salesman" rehearsal. "I sang a sea shanty during 'Moby Dick,' (2002) but I never had any confidence in myself as a soloist."
Ernst did know he had good pipes. He had been in a Midwest champion barbershop quartet in his late high school and early college years.
When new Rep artistic director Mark Clements asked to hear his singing voice, "I sang a very shaky rendition of 'Reviewing the Situation' from 'Oliver!'" Ernst recalled. "Mark heard that I could sing in tune."
Beyond that, the actor worried about his vocal range being too low for singing the emcee role. "I had to learn to sing higher," he said. "Fortunately, I had quit smoking a few years ago, and I could stretch my range.
"Dan Kazemi (the show's musical director) got me there within half an hour."
Ernst also had to dance in "Cabaret," and that presented a different kind of challenge for him. "I had to blend in with professional dancers."
Although he is far from an accomplished hoofer, the actor previously displayed his exceptional facility for physical performing by mastering the commedia dell'arte form at the Rep in the late '90s. But there was the matter of the 20-pound gut he had purposely grown last season to accurately portray his character in the Rep comedy "Happy Now?" The weight had to come off, and it did, with the help of a workout regimen he bought from a TV infomercial.
The effort was worth it. "Musicals are fun," Ernst said. "I haven't had that much fun onstage in a long time.
"It was thrilling, exhilarating to have all of that support onstage -- an orchestra, all of those wonderful Broadway chorus people, and Kelley." Kelley Faulkner played Sally Bowles in the production.
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Ernst is simply amazing. His interpretation of the Emcee will always be definitive for me.
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