Tod Petersen has been wrestling with his identity. He’s an actor, a singer and a writer who loves being on stage.
He is also a husband, a dreamer, a lover, a humanitarian and at age 58 still a kid who has spent most of the past two years living off the grid.
“I live in chapters,” Petersen said. Meaning: There is always something new on the horizon, some future dream to hold onto, and the freedom just to be alive.
For the next month, his chapter consists of playing Herbie in the Theater Latté Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust production of the musical “Gypsy,” which opens in previews Saturday at the Pantages Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.
This is his second big production in a row, coming off his retreat to a simpler life. He did “The Sound of Music” at the Ordway in December. He’ll move on to “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” at Children’s Theatre Company this spring.
This spate of activity might once have seemed normal for Petersen. He was a regular at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. He directed and acted with Interact Center for the Arts. And for eight years, he provided a holiday highlight for Twin Cities audiences with Latté Da’s “A Christmas Carole Petersen,” in which he brought all his charm and love to a lampoon of his family’s traditions.
However, after Latté Da’s “Our Town” in March 2014, Petersen and husband Ryan Lee — also an actor and musician — pushed themselves away from the hustle and the traffic of the mainstream.
They spent six months housesitting in an unincorporated northern Wisconsin town (“it was our happiest time”), 18 months scratching out work in Lanesboro, Minn. (“we loved that Mayberry sidewalk community”), two stints in mountainous Honduras teaching music to children for no money (“we fell in love 20 times with 20 kids”) and made a couple of visits to Thailand on Interact business.
“We enjoy it when it’s good, endure when it’s not,” he said. “My job is to accept life. It’s all about today.”
Looking for next adventure
Petersen and Lee were colleagues at Interact, where they taught music, wrote and directed shows and coached actors who live with disabilities.
They were friends, but Petersen considered the younger man “out of my league.” Then one night during a walk along the Mississippi River, “friendship turned into love.”
“Ryan and I are just looking for our next adventure,” he said. “We have no home, no debt. I found a pair of Keens for 10 bucks at Savers. It’s really cheap to be us.” The only thing he has bought new, he said, was a good pair of hiking boots, which he showed off during a recent visit.
Petersen is in love with being in love, in being married.
“I love being a team, being accountable to one another,” he said. “He’s trained me in the art of calming down. I used to think it was so important to be independent, but now I really love accountability, being devoted to another person.”
His stage family
For Petersen, “Gypsy” is like old home week. He has long associations with many of the other actors and with director Peter Rothstein, the Latté Da artistic director who has frequently employed him for nearly 20 years.
In fact, Petersen played Herbie — the long-suffering agent who tries to make a family with Mama Rose and her two girls — when Rothstein did this show in the Loring Playhouse in Minneapolis back in 2006.
The Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical is universally considered among the greatest of Broadway’s golden era. Mama Rose was first defined by Ethel Merman in the 1959 production (which featured Jack Klugman as Herbie) and has since been among the most coveted roles by musical theater actors.
Rothstein, in a deft piece of casting, chose Michelle Barber for the iconic role with her own daughter, Cat Brindisi, playing Louise, the shy girl who blossoms into the notorious burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. Tyler Michaels plays Tulsa, the chorus boy who dances away with Dainty Jane (Shinah Brashears).
Petersen watched Brindisi grow up on the Chanhassen stage, and this is the fourth time he and Barber have been a stage couple.
He would welcome more stage time this year. Asked whether he’d like to bring back “A Christmas Carole Petersen” in December, after an eight-year absence, he jumped.
“Sure!” he said. But he added, “That’s up to Peter.”
If Rothstein calls, Petersen will be ready. That is because for all the travels and adventures and the genuine back-to-the-earth peace Petersen has found over the past few years, he loves theater. It remains his primary identity.
“I love being in a play, going to the theater, hanging out in the dressing room, being with the guys, putting on my costume,” he said. “I never had the loftiest goals; I just like the work, mucking around with all my friends on stage. Being an actor is so much fun. It’s just so much fun.”
And that is what life should be about, right?