By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Apr 14, 2011 at 9:01 AM

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.

Ernst was a premier actor at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green and he graduated from the Professional Theatre Training Program at the University of Delaware before he moved to the Milwaukee to work at the Rep. His classical pedigree is impeccable, and that influenced the way he played the "Cabaret" emcee.

Rather than portray him as a demonic figure, Ernst, in consultation with director Clements, saw the character more as a Shakespearean clown. "He is so prescient. He sees things no one else sees. He has wisdom," the actor said.

Shakespeare is also being mentioned in the "Death of a Salesman" rehearsal hall. Ernst, who has played Lear, Hamlet and Richard III, perceives Shakespearean echoes in the drama.

"Willy (Loman) has that timeless, transcendent sense of humanity, and there is no waste in Miller's writing," he explained.

Ernst will not be portraying Loman as a pathetic figure. "What strikes me about Willy is his eternal optimism," he said. "He is always looking forward.

"Some performances of Willy are too inwardly focused, almost to the point of him not looking at the other characters. Some performances are begging for sympathy all the time.

"I don't think Willy begs. He is too much of a fighter to say 'uncle.' I think he is a tragic hero."

Ernst reports he is completely absorbed in the character and play. He has gained back the 20 pounds he lost for "Cabaret," and he stopped working out to intentionally lose body tone for the role. Willy Loman is occupying his brain.

"I like to enjoy a cocktail, but I've stopped drinking to clear my head for this," he said. "The density of the script is extraordinary. The levels of complexity in the play are daunting, fascinating and infinitely interesting.

"I'm dreaming about it. It is consuming me in a way I didn't anticipate."

It is difficult to overstate the theatrical feat -- from the emcee to Willy -- Ernst is engaged in this season. University of Delaware Professional Theatre Training Program director Sanford Robbins trained him, and has this to say about Ernst:

"What makes Lee so special is he is one of an increasingly small number of actors whose artistic aim is not only to truthfully and theatrically play the roles he plays, but also to transform -- physically, vocally, emotionally, mentally -- from one role to another, and Lee is rarer still in having the skill to do that. He is the real thing, the total package, and Milwaukee is blessed to have him."

As if this season weren't impressive enough, Ernst is planning a summer of career firsts. He will professionally direct for the first time, "Hamlet" at the Texas Shakespeare Festival, and he will make his acting debut with the Peninsula Players in Door County. Ernst will appear in the drama "A Few Good Men" and the comedy "The Fox on the Fairway" for the Players.

Explaining why he is dipping a toe into directing, Ernst said, "I can't keep up the demands of this type of thing (acting) forever. I think it makes sense for me to see what it is like to sit in a chair and make a play happen."

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.