By Thomas B. Harrison
Mobile Press-Register Arts Editor
Courtesy of the Mobile Register 2011 © All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Bruce and Darla Earnest have an intimate knowledge of musical theater and what it takes to make a living in the footlights.
Both are seasoned pros with impressive theater and opera credits in the United States and Europe, and a history of sharing their experience and expertise with students who aspire to follow the Earnests' example. The couple also share a profound faith and a belief that theater training can offer lessons that stay with students long after they leave the stage.
They certainly have found a home at the University of Mobile, where Bruce Earnest is in his second year as associate professor of theater and chair and director of musical theater
. His wife is an adjunct professor of musical theater and classical vocal technique.
Their current project at UM is "The Music Man," which opens next weekend at the Upper Room Theatre. (April 15-17)
Bruce Earnest, 41, is a tenor who got the musical theater bug early one, while he was still a kid singing in church in his native Southbridge, Mass.
"I admit I'm a Yankee," he says, "but now I am fully committed to the Southern way of life."
As a youngster he spent time with his "wonderfully eccentric" uncle who used to perform at nightclubs around Fort Lauderdale. Bruce says he grew up loving tunes such as "Come Fly with Me," "Satin Doll" and "The Lady Is A Tramp."
His grandmother was "kind of musical," says Bruce, who is half Italian. His grandparents listened to a lot of Frank Sinatra and Al Martino.
"I always had that sound, that voice within me," he says.
Even when he began getting jobs in the summer, Earnest says he was not sure he could make a career of it. "I was still thinking I'd be a lawyer," he says.
Then he was asked to audition for the University of Miami, where he received a full graduate teaching assistantship in opera and musical theater. There he was able to learn from some the likes of Stephen Sondheim and opera professionals. "It was," he says, "an amazing environment."
As much as he loves directing, Bruce likes to take at least one professional gig every other year or so. Last year he toured Europe in a production of "Chess," the musical with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by two members of Abba. He also has appeared in Mozart's "The Magic Flute," Rossini's "Barber of Seville" and other opera productions.
But his focus has been building and developing the musical theater program at the University of Mobile, which he and Darla would like to see compete with more established theater programs at larger universities.
Bruce Earnest has lived in and around the South for most of the past 25 years or so, with a four-year hiatus in Germany, where he and Darla lived and worked. Before they came to Mobile in 2009, the Earnests spent four years in South Dakota, where Bruce was chair of the musical theater department at the university.
When the Earnests visited Mobile, they fell in love with the university and its students.
"I was amazed at the level of talent here," he says. "They are some of the most talented students we've ever worked with. And there's a humility there. They are really committed to what they are doing, and they do it in a way that's service oriented. It's really a joy to be here."
Darla Earnest is uniquely qualified to offer advice - as a musical theater professional, as a mother and as a thirtysomething mother-to-be. She and Bruce have a son, Lukas, who will be 4 years old in a few weeks. She will give birth to their second child in November.
Like her husband, Darla began singing in church and gradually took on greater roles in theater and opera. She performed with the "Voices of Liberty" at EPCOT Center in Orlando, and sang the role of Blonde in Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio."
She was the soprano soloist for a staging of Brahms' Requiem. In South Dakota she conceived and mounted a one-woman revue titled "From Beethoven to Broadway," which she would like to restage in Mobile. When she finds the time, of course.
Darla is impressed by the multiplicity of skills exhibited by her students. No one-trick ponies in this stable.
"You have a student who can jump in and play piano, then teach tap two seconds later, and then sing," she says. "That's usually a rarity, but here you can expect that a student has more than one performing skill, and we're really blessed with that. It makes for a more interesting program and more diverse performances, too, if an actor can do multiple things in a show."
Darla is working with some of the singers in "The Music Man," and she says perhaps the most important thing is helping a student find his or her own voice.
"I believe every singer has a unique instrument," she says. "I love helping people find their inner voice by using their outer voice. It gives them a sense of uniqueness, that they matter, that what they have is different from anyone else's. No one can match it, no one could re-create it. It's only theirs and you have to protect it. When they start to see that, I've done my job well."
The Earnests are deeply involved in a three-week summertime program, the International Performing Arts Institute
(http://www.internationalperformingartsinstitute.com) in Bavaria, about 45 minutes from Munich.
About two dozen students from throughout the United States work directly with American and German stage directors, choreographers, voice teachers and other experts in an intensive program designed to prepare them for professional careers.
Elyn Collier, 21, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla., says she would like to be a performer, choreographer, artistic director and/or casting director.
"I'm very interested in regional theater," she says. "A friend of mine and I have discussed starting a theater."
Collier has appeared in five productions at UM: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Singin' in the Rain," the musical revue "Songs of Hope," "Oklahoma!" and currently "The Music Man."
Collier says the Earnests have taught her "to be competitive in a healthy way."
"I've learned to still be competitive, but not in a way that hinders the people around me. Additionally, I'm a perfectionist - many actors are. Bruce is always making sure I'm not too hard on myself. He's great about checking up on me and encouraging me."
Collier says Germany was "amazing," and she returned with "a completely different voice."
"I got to work with various professors (and) performers from all over the country," she says. "I learned a lot about 'acting' a song, and my voice. It was grueling, 8 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. each day, but I wouldn't trade it for the world."
The UM students now have musical theater contacts from the people they worked with in Kiefersfelden, the village where most of the program takes place. They also had a chance to work with the notable casting director Ralf Schaedler, who Collier describes as "the master at 'acting the song.' He is all about specifics, very detailed oriented and extremely knowledgeable."
Darla says the summertime workshops provide students with "some of the experiences we've had and wish we'd had. We want them have something they could never have in the States. It's a different culture (in Europe), and they make connections they can keep for graduate schools or actual jobs."
Alana Swindler, 23, is a native of Lexington, S.C., is a senior at the University of Mobile. At UM she has appeared in "Fiddler on the Roof," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Songs of Hope," "Lend Me A Tenor" (as Maria Merelli), "Oklahoma!" (as Aunt Eller), and "Singin' in the Rain" (as the Wardrobe Mistress).
Last summer she had the opportunity to attend the Earnests' workshops in Germany.
"I was able to grow as a singer-actor," she says. "I was challenged to think about why I was saying or singing something in a particular way or scene. Our schedule was filled each day with workshops and rehearsals. I was able to have just a taste of what it would be like to work (as) a professional, (and) I believe this experience and my experience at UM
has given me the confidence to continue pursuing my career as a performer."
Photos by John David Mercer, MPR staff photographer
Darla and Bruce Earnest watch a run-through as the cast rehearses for the
University of Mobile show "The Music Man" at the Saraland High School
Performing Arts Center.
Members of the cast rehearse.