They get along like a house on fire. In fact, their offstage banter can feel like a spectacle all its own.
Actors Kersten Rodau and John-Michael Zuerlein met 23 years ago in a northern Wisconsin summer stock theater — a rough-hewn crucible they likened to Army tours of duty, with its austere living conditions. They performed together in just one show since then.
The Will-and-Grace-style BFFs went on to pursue respective theater careers with some success — he on cruise ships and the national tour of “Mamma Mia!,” she as a Twin Cities leading lady at the Ordway, Theater Latté Da and Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, among others. And now they’re reuniting under much more pleasant circumstances, sharing their biggest stage to date.
Rodau and Zuerlein are headlining “Mamma Mia!,” the jaunty Abba musical opening Friday at Chanhassen. Rodau plays Donna, the strongly independent taverna owner who bedded three men during her wild youth, giving her a daughter now soon to be married. Zuerlein plays Sam, one of the possible baby daddies.
“I really resonate with Donna and wanted to be in the show so bad,” Rodau said. “I was brought up by an independent single mom who loved Abba.”
Likewise, Zuerlein attributes the show’s popularity to its “strong female characters.” After acting in the national “Mamma Mia!” tour for three years, he’s especially taken with director Michael Brindisi’s vision for the musical, with a new staging that really involves the audience in the fun. “These songs were never meant to drive a story along,” Zuerlein said. “But [the creative team] managed to weave them into a story that sort of makes sense.”
And dollars and cents, too. “Mamma Mia!” had the highest pre-opening sale of any show in Chanhassen’s 50-year history.
Chemistry and history
Lots of acting pairs have long-term history and chemistry, including Twin Citians Raye Birk and Candace Barrett Birk, who have been married for decades in addition to performing together. But Zuerlein and Rodau bring a special bond, treating a visitor to what looked like an old-fashioned vaudeville routine.
“I have a lot of female friends, like most gay men do, but we’ve connected on a different level,” he said.
Rodau and Zuerlein readily describe their friendship as siblinglike — “except I’m not this close to any of my sisters,” he added. Which is why they were caught in a quandary as rehearsals heated up last week. How, they wondered aloud, would they pull off their first stage kiss?
“We’re still negotiating that,” Rodau said.
“Eww,” Zuerlein said, sarcastically. “I have been experimenting with wax covers for my lips.”
The two were kvetching in nearby Brindisi’s Pub over lunch break. She ordered a harvest apple salad; he, a cowboy burger — medium-rare with no tomatoes.
“In the show there’s three middle-aged dads and all these beach kids,” Zuerlein said. “I can’t compete with all these beach bodies, so I might as well have a hamburger.”
“And I just shake my head,” she said. “I yell at him for it.”
“You have to get a salad because you have to fit into a slip,” he said, with the voice of a kid singing na-na-na-na-na-na. “I’m fat right now.”
To an outsider, the two sound like snippy cats clawing, sometimes sharply, at each other. But who knows the alchemy of friendship?
“We have the exact same sense of humor — from really stupid things to really inappropriate things,” he said.
“And he talks a lot when he’s nervous,” she said. “I think he’s nervous about falling in love with me.”
That first summer
Like the characters in “Mamma Mia!” who sing “Our Last Summer,” Rodau and Zuerlein often flash back to their first summer together in 1996 at that rustic theater. An Omaha native, he was still a student at Iowa’s Clarke University. She had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, returning for a second summer to the place that gave her a first professional job.
“It had a lovely name but was basically a tent in the woods,” he remembered.
“It was made of chipboard,” she said.
“OK, chipboard in the woods,” he said. “We were doing four shows and we liked to hang out. Then they cast us as dance partners in ‘Godspell,’ which was hilarious because we are the two worst dancers on the planet.”
They went their separate ways after that summer. But then Zuerlein and his then-partner moved to the Twin Cities in 1999. Catching “Sweeney Todd” at the Guthrie Lab one evening, he was surprised to see his old friend in the show.
“It was like no time had passed,” Rodau said. “I told him about the theaters to audition for, and Chan was looking for someone for ‘Forever Plaid.’ I said, ‘John, don’t get your hopes up. I’ve been auditioning there for years and it’s hard to get in.’ ”
Zuerlein landed a part with his first audition.
“I was mad at him,” she said.
“But then you got in not long after, and that’s because I told them about you,” he said.
He would later move to Kansas City. Then he started booking acting gigs on cruise ships in Australia, Greece and the South Pacific.
He would also move to New York City, where he found more success as a carpenter and handyman than as an actor.
She remained in the Twin Cities, raising a family and continuing to build her reputation.
And now they both find themselves in an unexpected place in their lives.
“We both see ourselves as character actors — not leading lady or man,” she said.
“I played Bill on [the ‘Mamma Mia!’] tour, the goofy guy,” he said. “I wouldn’t immediately cast myself as Sam, this handsome architect. Ask her, I’m the ugly actor.”
“I didn’t say that,” she said.
Their offstage repartee will no doubt bleed into their onstage scenes.
“It’s just a feel-good show,” he said. “At the end of the night, it’s impossible to leave the theater in a bad mood.”
“Well,” she said, “they haven’t seen your performance yet.”