It’s a blessing to spend your life doing work you love. If you happen to be an actor, it’s also something of a miracle.
Minnesotans have been cheering his charismatic performances for years, including his memorable turns as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, King Triton in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and Javert in Les Miserables.
He’s currently working in his 41st production at the theater, appearing in eight shows a week as the idealistic and betrayed King Arthur in Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot.
Rohan Preston, in his recent Camelot review for the Star Tribune, praised Rice for playing his role “magnetically,” adding that the “winning production is a reminder that fairy tales can have social value, and not serve merely as escapist fantasies. In times of trouble — which is to say any era in human history — such stories can serve as reminders of sweet dreams.”
‘I want to do that’
For Rice, there’s special meaning attached to this particular musical, since it’s the one that started him on his life in the theater.
“I was 7 years old, growing up in Long Island, N.Y., and my mother came home with the original cast album for Camelot,” he said. “I was transfixed from the moment I heard the first notes of the overture. And when I heard Robert Goulet singing C’est Moi, I said; ‘I want to do that.’ It was the moment that solidified everything.”
His mother arranged for him to begin working with a vocal coach. By the time he was 14, his tastes had expanded to include not just opera and Broadway, but also rock and roll.
“I was in a band, Valhalla, for 10 years,” Rice said. “We released three albums, and worked major circuits in New York, but we really never really took off.”
It was opera that provided Rice his first big break, when he was cast as Francois Villon in The Vagabond King for the Houston and San Francisco operas.
“It was fantastic, one of the great experiences of my life,” Rice said. “I had four swordfights and eight songs, and I was up in the air 25 feet and swung down on a rope.”
An earthquake and a move
Rice and his wife, Dena, married in 1984. They settled down in Los Angeles.
He was busy touring the country, and his travel schedule was intense. But in 1992, he happened to be at home when a major earthquake struck the area. He was shaken by the disaster and determined to spend more time with his family, including their sons, Luke and William.
Then fate intervened.
He received an invitation to star as the Phantom in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ production of the Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit version of Phantom of the Opera.
Impressed with the company and spurred by his wife’s desire to move back home to her native Minnesota, Rice settled his family in Champlin and proceeded to appear in 40 more shows at the theater.
If his voice sounds familiar, by the way, that’s because he’s the voiceover actor on the theater’s commercials, too: “I can do a great ‘voice of God,’” Rice said with a laugh.
No small parts, just small actors
And he’s done it all with a maximum of hard work and a minimum of actorly ego, said Kris Howland, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ public relations director.
“While Keith has done Broadway tours and national operas across the country, he is as humble as they come,” Howland said. “He has a fantastic sense of humor, a deep, abiding love for his family and an unshakable faith. He is a genuinely real and kind human being.”
Howland said Rice is a rare find in that he doesn’t measure his success by the size of the roles he plays.
“He’s deeply committed to being a working actor, and that means he’ll do whatever role he’s asked to do and will do it happily,” she said.
Indeed, this spring, Rice will return to the Chanhassen stage in the relatively small role of Vince Fontaine in Grease, which opens March 3.
He’ll play the host of the television dance show at Rydell High’s gym. “I’m going from being a king to being a smarmy DJ,” he said.
Playing a role as physically and emotionally demanding as King Arthur could take a toll on any actor, but Rice is known for his boundless energy.
Aleks Knezevich, who appears as Lancelot in the show, said: “Keith is double my age, but I swear he has more energy than me. Watching him work with excitement, commitment and an open mind is like being in a master class on how to create a character.”
One of Rice’s healthy-living secrets? Naps. He swears by them.
“It’s a great rejuvenation,” he said. “I always take a nap before the show, sometimes at the theater, but usually at home. I’ve always been a napper and I can fall right asleep.”
Rice, who is buff beyond his years, stretches every day and usually runs on a treadmill for three miles every other day. He lifts weights not just at home, but also at the theater, where he practices a regular ab-strengthening routine, too.
“I got the work out bug when I was 13 and never looked back,” he said. “It’s fun and I still enjoy it.”
Rice also credits his good health to weekly sauna sessions and supplements such as fish oil, lecithin, magnesium powder and probiotics — plus plenty of liquids.
Keeping a positive attitude is also important to Rice.
“I’m grateful every day just for waking up and having a day ahead of me,” he said. “It’s one more day to enjoy life and to be with others. I try to move forward with a grateful heart.”
Man on the hill
With a strong network of friends and colleagues in the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ community, Rice is a mentor to many, who routinely cite his unique generosity of time, energy and spirit.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ resident artistic director Michael Brindisi recalled Rice’s generosity at a company picnic a couple years ago.
“It was on a Monday, a day the actors have off,” Brindisi said. “Keith was playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and was planning to take a rest day and skip the picnic. Then he heard that my 90-year-old father was visiting and was going to be there.
“Keith drove in to the picnic from his home in Champlin. He sat on a hill with my dad, overlooking the softball game, and talked with him for a couple of hours before he went home for his one day of rest. Needless to say, I have a great deal of respect and love for Keith Rice.”
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local publications. She lives in Minneapolis and blogs at kendrickworks.blogspot.com.
Written by Frederick Loewe (music) and Alan Jay Lerner (who adapted the T. H. White novel, The Once and Future King), Camelot is based on the story of King Arthur and his knights.
Originally starring Richard Burton as Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guinevere and Robert Goulet as Lancelot, it won four Tony Awards in 1961, including Best Score.
Chanhassen’s resident artistic director Michael Brindisi said: “I love this play because it’s so emotionally packed. It’s about passion — Arthur’s passion for ideas, Guinevere and Lancelot’s passion for romance, and their shared passion for Arthur and his dreams.”
Read the Star Tribune’s review of the show here.
When: Through Feb. 25. Evening performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1 p.m., and Sundays at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, Chanhassen
Cost: Dinner-and-show ticket prices are $75 for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings; $65 for Wednesday matinees; $85 for Friday shows; $68 for Saturday matinees; $85 for Saturday-evening shows; and $80 for Sunday performances.
Info: Call 952-934-1525 or see ChanhassenDT.com for tickets.