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July 21, 2014

How to succeed in acting ... and never quit trying

Ben Nordstrom and Whit Reichert, a pair of popular, well-respected actors who have managed to work steadily in the region, believe in the brotherhood of theater.

So it's no surprise that Stages St. Louis has paired them as J. Pierrepont Finch and J.B. Biggley in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." The show runs through Aug. 17 at the Robert Reim Theatre in Kirkwood.

The 1961 musical lampoons corporate life on Madison Avenue in the 1960s, featuring a funny book by Abe Burrows and music score by Frank Loesser ("Guys and Dolls"), and won the Tony Award for Best Musical and Pulitzer Prize.

Nordstrom is window-washer Finch whose meteoric rise from mailroom to board room is the focus. J.B. Biggley runs World Wide Wickets when he's not fooling around with Hedy LaRue.

Reichert, a Belleville native who graduated from Belleville West High School and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, has played the Biggley role three times.

"It's fun to come into a show familiar with the character, but you want to make it your own. I stay away from looking at the movie. I like going back to the blackboard, working on the basics, and going from there," he said.

Nordstrom, who grew up in Oklahoma City, Okla., portrayed Finch as a sophomore at the Webster University Conservatory, but always wanted to re-create the character.

"I agree with all of that. No one is going to forget (Tony winner) Robert Morse in the role. I embrace it. I'm not running from it, but I'm not copying it either. You don't want to overdo it, not re-invent the wheel," he said. "I have to relax and trust myself and trust the material, and it all sort of becomes my own."

Working together many times, besides playing poker and golf socially in their off-hours, has its benefits on stage. Besides Stages, they have both worked at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, The Variety Club Theatre, the Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock, and other smaller companies.

"We're very comfortable with each other," Nordstrom said. "I love doing 'Grand Old Ivy' with him because it's just us goofing around. I'm playing on stage with Whit and getting paid for it."

They consider the show a gem, particularly with the ensemble that Artistic Director Michael Hamilton has assembled. "I can't say enough about the cast -- Bud Frump, Rose, Smitty, Hedy, Chairman of the Board -- so funny and so good," Nordstrom said.

Reichert is now in his 13th season with Stages and "How to Succeed" is his 19th show. "It's a real nice family there, it's like coming home. The audiences really appreciate the performers. It's a special kind of place, and we're lucky to be a part of it," Reichert said.

Nordstrom considers the show a classic look into the past, with much energy and humor.

"I'm really excited about the show. It's dated but not outdated, and dated is not necessarily a bad thing. The book is really funny. It is a product of its time, the early '60s," he said.

Reichert thinks the material has stood the test of time, and he likes his role.

"I think it's good to be the King," he said. "You can't take him too seriously. He's a big businessman who doesn't know what's going on, and he likes it that way."

His favorite number is "I Believe in You." "Ben does the number great, and so do the guys in the washroom as back-up," he said.

"The Brotherhood of Man" and "The Company Way" are other songs they enjoy performing.

A star is born

Reichert is celebrating his 40th year as a member of Actors Equity Association. As a kid growing up in west Belleville, he said he was always performing.

"Signal Hill had a school pageant at the end of the school year, and the eighth- graders played the leading roles. I was Injun Joe in 'Tom Sawyer," he said. At West, he started out acting in one-act plays.

"It wasn't until I was in college that I decided this is what I'm going to do. I got my Equity card while I was still in college. And I continued to work every summer," he said.

He worked with the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows-based group First Thing Monday Morning under the mentorship of the Rev. Allan Maes, in the early '70s.

Professionally, he appeared in "Arsenic and Old Lace" at the Old Plantation Dinner-Theatre, and toured the country in a Burlesque '77 show. That's where he met his wife of 33 years, Millie Garvey, a choreographer.

Acting became a year-round endeavor, and St. Louis has always been home base.

Always an actor

Nordstrom said he can't remember wanting to do anything else.

"That's all I wanted to do, really. I wanted to be on SNL ("Saturday Night Live"). I wanted to be Dana Carvey," he said. "It wasn't until I was in high school musicals that I began singing."

Nordstrom, who met Kristen, his wife of 13 years, in an Arrow Rock show -- she was a choreographer -- lived in New York for 10 years before moving back here when they had their son Sam, who is now 10. He has appeared in off-Broadway and regional theater around the country.

They returned to NYC three years ago, living there two, and coming back last year when Kristen was hired as the general manager at Stages.

"You can do good work, it doesn't matter that you're not in New York," he said. "We have a supportive base here. You can string together a life as a professional actor that is amazing and awesome. The community is very supportive. It's a big circle that goes around."

Steady work

Both actors work in comedy, drama and musicals, veering from Shakespeare to Neil Simon.

"It's such a gift to have the opportunity to do something different," Nordstrom said. Reichert added: "It's always great fun."

As clients of Talent Plus, they both appear in commercials, industrial films and narrative features. Reichert worked four days with George Clooney on "Up in the Air," appearing as the father of the bride in the wedding scene. "My best stuff was on the cutting room floor," he said.

Nordstrom teaches acting to students, and also directs the musicals and plays at Villa Duchesne High School. "Teaching has been a real nice opportunity. I have learned a lot," he said. In addition, he performs in cabarets around town.

Reichert and his wife created their own jobs, founding the RG Acting Company years ago. They produced shows for corporations, private parties and special requests.

Reichert will return to Stages for their final production of the summer, playing the Constable in "Fiddler on the Roof."

This fall, they will work together again in the Variety Club's "Little Mermaid," with Nordstrom as Prince Eric and Reichert as Chef Louie. It will be directed by Lara Teeter at the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts.

Then it will be Christmas season, and Reichert is a sought-after Santa Claus for hire.

Nordstrom appeared at the Muny for the first time as Tony the angry older brother in "Billy Elliot." He'll be in a show at Arrow Rock in September, and will star in the world premiere of a play called "Reality" for HotCity later this year.

He had always booked up for the summer before the Muny had auditions, but this year it worked out, as he wasn't in the first Stages show.

"It was amazing, quite an experience. I kind of can't believe I was on that stage. It was fun working with so many people who did the tour of the Broadway production, and they turned into an amazing family," he said.

Reichert said that the first thing you notice as a Muny performer is that the laugh lines come in waves, from the free seats to the front row.

Both actors are grateful to be in a growing company of local performers getting work at a number of respected venues around town. They show up at auditions and hope for the best.

"It's great to be a working actor, period, in St. Louis or anywhere, it's just great to be working," Reichert said, who also adds St. Louis Actors' Studio and Shakespeare Festival St. Louis among his credits. He has been in 26 shows at The Rep.

He credits the Kevin Kline Awards pushing the professional theater community forward.

"Smaller theater companies picked up. They wanted to get recognized. It was good for the growth of smaller theaters," he said. "Now the critics have picked up the ball (St. Louis Theater Circle Awards), and this helps a thriving theater community."

Reichert has carved a niche as a character actor, and has played a wide range of ages.

"There's really no age in theater. I barely notice people's age on stage," he said.

Both know they must keep sharp as triple threats.

"I don't know any performer who doesn't continue to take voice lessons," Nordstrom said.

"I've been able to fool so many people so long, I wouldn't trade it for anything else," Reichert said, with a wink and a smile.

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