Ask devilishly funny actor ­Kersten Rodau to describe herself, and she'll say she's "a suburban wife and mom who acts."

Ask those who have cast her in lead roles at Ordway Center, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and elsewhere, and they use such phrases as "a natural wonder of the stage." So says James Rocco, who put Rodau in the Ordway's current staging of "The Pirates of Penzance."

"It's touching that she's so devoted to her family and to living in the Twin Cities," Rocco said. "But if she were to go to a bigger market, she would be a huge Broadway star."

"A phenom with an incredible range" is how another Broadway veteran, director John Command, describes her. "Keri's so versatile. She's a lyric soprano and a mezzo. She belts. She's a dream for a director."

If Rodau's humility is surprising, it also seems sincere. It was formed early, when she was growing up in Elkhorn, Wis., with her mother, a nurse, and older brother, at the time a fiendish drummer. (Her parents divorced early and her father, a telephone company executive, lived in nearby Milwaukee.)

"If you see pictures of me from that era, I am always surrounded by all these beautiful blondes, and I was the funny one," she said. "I never thought of myself as pretty, so I had to find a way to distinguish myself."

Humor was the vehicle. Even now, Rodau is quick to make faces, whether squinching up her nose or giving funny looks onstage that elicit guffaws. In two decades of performing, she has made tens of thousands of people laugh on stages as varied as the Guthrie, Chanhassen and Jungle Theatre.

But Rodau did not think of entertaining audiences as a career. Initially, she wanted to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a nurse.

"What can I say: I love my mother and she's my role model," she said.

But she also liked to sing. At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, she studied vocal performance, intending to become an opera star. But things changed her senior year, when the opera kids teamed up with the theater folks for the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods."

'Cinderella' story

Rodau was cast as Cinderella. The audience response to her performance was electric and intoxicating. It also changed her trajectory. "I discovered that I could sing, act and be funny onstage," she said. "That's when I said: Forget opera. I found my calling."

After graduation, she moved to the Twin Cities, where she joined her college sweetheart, Eric Dentler. (The two would later marry, welcoming a daughter, Paige, 13, and a son, Jack, 7. Dentler is now a marketing executive at St. Jude Medical.)

Director Command gave Rodau her first break in the Twin Cities, casting her in a supporting role in a 1997 production of "My Fair Lady" with the Morris Park Players. Command wanted to cast her as Eliza Doolittle, the lead, but he had already promised that part to another actor before Rodau walked into the audition room.

"When Keri opened her mouth, I was like: Omigod, this girl, she can do anything," he said. "I knew we had to have her."

Command has cast Rodau many times in the years since, including in "Urinetown," "Man of La Mancha" and "Funny Girl," in which she played Fanny Brice. That last role, which made Barbra Streisand a star, was tailor-made for Rodau, Command said.

"I'd been in the national Broadway tour of 'Funny Girl' with Barbara Cook as the star, and I can tell you, Keri held her own against all of those actors who ever played Fanny."

Including Streisand?

"Yes. Like Barbra, she's beautiful but not in a conventional way. Keri has this geeky quality, and she's hysterically funny, with all these faces that she makes. But where she really excelled was in the sad moments, like 'Don't Rain on My Parade' and 'Who Are You Now?' "

Nervous and self-effacing

While all of those interviewed had high regard for Rodau's talent, the actor seems to deflect the kudos.

Fearing she might come off as showy, selfish or self-absorbed, she was keen to call out the names of her co-stars in the show, including Dieter Bierbrauer, with whom she has acted in several productions at the Ordway (including this summer's staging of "Damn Yankees," in which she played intrepid reporter Gloria Thorpe). She also mentioned her co-stars, with Broadway credits, including Brandon O'Neill ("Aladdin") as the Pirate King and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka ("A Little Night Music") as Frederic.

"It's well-known that shy people use the theater to deal with their insecurities," she said. "I'm one of those."

Rodau's most memorable roles include Ursula the Sea Witch in "The Little Mermaid" and older sister Melpomene in "Xanadu," both at Chanhassen.

In "Penzance" she plays Ruth, a nursemaid turned pirate. This is not her first encounter with the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. She was in a Guthrie production a decade ago.

"The neat thing about playing Ruth now is that in 2004, when I was playing Isabel, one of the sisters, at the Guthrie, I remember watching Jan Neuberger as Ruth and thinking: 'Aging is not going to be bad,' " she said. "There are funny roles out there, especially for someone who didn't get spoiled with ingénue parts."

Rodau rattled off a number of roles she hopes to play, including Mama Rose in "Gypsy," Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd" and another stab at Fanny Brice. But she quickly turned the conversation away from herself, this time to her family.

Her career is rubbing off on her daughter, who was cast in a summer camp production of "The Little Mermaid Jr." — but not as Ursula, as she had hoped. Instead, she got a small part as one of the sea witch's tentacles.

"She came home crying and I told her, 'Honey, you can't always get what you want,' " Rodau said. "That's when I had to go through my last 20 years of rejections with her. Hearing 'no' is a big part of the business."

She paused.

"There's no feeling like the thrill and excitement of being on stage," she said. "I'm a better mother and wife because of it. I'm a better person because of it. It's a place where all the fears melt away, all the questions disappear and everything clicks."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390