Jerry Lee

Actor who grew up in Roseville back on Sacramento-area stages


by Marcus Crowder, 

The Sacramento Bee

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The young actor Jerry Lee has always had a bit of an old soul about him. The quiet confidence, which easily blends with a self-effacing charm, deepens the cagey mix of characters in and out of which he bounces.

Having just finished a sparkling turn as Fred, Scrooge's nephew in the Sacramento Theatre Company's "A Christmas Carol," Lee takes the satiric lead in STC's musical comedy "The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)." Following "Musical" Lee will play opposite Nanci Zoppi in New Helvetia's just- announced production of "They're Playing Our Song."

Lee's versatility allows him to convincingly play lead nonconformist Berger in "Hair" or to comfortably cross-dress in the beauty-show satire "Pageant." He has platformed a youthful love of performing into a burgeoning professional career that doesn't surprise anyone who's worked with him or seen him onstage.

Growing up in Roseville, Lee started out in the youth programs of Bob and Rosemarie Gerould's Magic Circle Theatre.

"He first came to us when he was very young," Rosemarie Gerould said. "Most boys that age want to go faster than the process allows, but he seemed to drink it all up and really understand it."

Lee said the grounding in theater fundamentals he received from the Geroulds is still a foundation for him. He soon moved from the children's programs into the adult shows on the Roseville Theatre stage.

"He was like a sponge and wanted to learn as much as he could," Bob Gerould said.

"We've met very few kids who were that aware of what they needed to do to get better," he added.

"When you have someone as talented as Jerry, who's giving you things you haven't even asked for yet, you think: 'This is nice!' " Rosemarie Gerould said.

Working with the Geroulds brought Lee into contact with the tough theater love of Jack Lynn. Lynn, a veteran British theater professional who had semi-retired in Sacramento, directed Lee in several shows and became a mentor to the young actor. Lynn first cast Lee in a production of the British farce "Charley's Aunt" at Garbeau's. Lee was still in high school at Oakmont, but Lynn was extremely demanding.

"He was so staunch and intimidating," Lee said. The teenager wasn't sure what to make of the experience with Lynn, but the Englishman began showing up at his shows, offering encouragement.

"Jack was a great proponent of having a standard for the art that you do and the theater that you do," Lee said. "I've always appreciated that, and I'm glad that's been instilled in me."

Lee then began working at theaters throughout the region, picking up whatever shows he could, sometimes doing 10 to 12 a year.

"I really, truly think of that as part of my training," Lee said. "I got so comfortable in front of audiences, comfortable enough to take risks, to be funny or be serious, to do what I wanted."

After several years of working at community and semiprofessional theaters in Sacramento, Lee made what he feels was a seminal decision. Despite his years of experience he entered the actor-training program at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.

"When they offered me the place in the conservatory, then I thought 'OK, I need to start taking myself more seriously,' " Lee said. "I'm so glad I went, because it sorted me out."

The PCPA reinforced the idea of professional standards Lee had first learned from Lynn.

"Basically they told me 'You're hired to do your best work and be brilliant, and your job is to aspire to that.' "

Through the PCPA, Lee met Connor Mickiewicz, who was starting New Helvetia in Sacramento, and they were finally able to work together on last year's "(title of show)."

"Jerry's got this great energy onstage," Mickiewicz said. "You can toss anything at him, and he'll toss it right back. Plus, he's got a rare sense of timing. He's very funny."

Mickiewicz, who will direct Lee in "They're Playing Our Song," said the toughest task will be getting Lee to look and sound average.

"He has such a gorgeous instrument, what's going to be hard is telling Jerry not to oversing, and be a little more pedestrian with his voice," Mickiewicz said.

Lee still looks up the Geroulds, who have moved downtown to the Studio Theatre, where Lee often worked.

For old times' sakes, he even helped them build the current set.

Rosemarie Gerould said, "Not many actors would do that."


• "Valjean's Soliloquy" (from "Les Misérables")

This is probably my favorite piece of music to perform. The orchestration alone affects me like no other piece of musical theater. The challenge of this piece is to really earn the ending, "Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin." In a moment Valjean renounces all that he is and knows to begin a new life of morality and benevolence.

• "Night and Day" (from "The Gay Divorcee")

I love it because it is such great music that it doesn't require any tricks or vocal fireworks. It simply acts itself.

• "The Schmuel Song" (from "The Last 5 Years")

A husband has written his wife a fairy tale about an old, distressed tailor named Schmuel, who is given "unlimited time" to create a dress that would be his masterpiece. The husband uses the moral of the tale to encourage his wife to pursue her acting career: "Stop temping and go and be happy. … I give you unlimited time."

This is a totally enchanting and touching song, and such a smart look at how we use storytelling to urge others to action and to self- reflection. And it's in a fun time signature.

• "La Passeggiata" (from "The Light in the Piazza")

Sung completely in broken English by a young Florentine man trying to persuade a young American lady to take a stroll with him, la passeggiata.

Sentiment and affection overcome language barriers, making this a very fun and charming song about the art of communicating.

• "Something's Coming" (from "West Side Story")

I once heard that in the first out-of-town preview performance of "West Side Story," this song (and Larry Kert) received a standing ovation, and it only comes 10 minutes into the show.

I love that a song about "something" can be so engaging and have so much drive.