Tom Erickson’s stage appeal is over-the-top
August 8, 2008
ASPEN ” Tom Erickson figures he got his overall artistic abilities from his mother, Coral, who sang opera and acted in summer theater productions. But looking back, it appears that Erickson can trace one of his essential gifts to Coral not in her role as mother, but in her role as young Tom’s elementary school music teacher.
“She’d never call on me,” recalled Erickson. “I’d raise my hand, wave it around, and she’d say, ‘Nobody? Nobody?’ Until finally, one time, she called on me.” That little play seems to have taught Erickson a lesson: If you want to get attention, you’ve got to be big and over-the-top, get a little physical. But even without the teacher-student dynamic, Erickson probably would have absorbed the exaggerated quality from his mother eventually.
“You think I’m an over-actor, you should meet my mom,” said the 48-year-old Erickson. “We still make fun of her for her over-the-top ways. In my second role ever, in ‘Music Man,’ my mom was overacting so big, she knocked into me, pushed me over into the orchestra pit.”
Mom – who goes by Coral Madden – seems to be fully incorporated in the son.
Erickson says even away from the stage, his director ” that would be his wife, Cheryl ” constantly asks that he dial things down a few notches. “Even when I’m just describing things, my wife always makes me tone it down: ‘You’re embarrassing me.’ I say, ‘No, I’m just describing.'” Over the course of an interview, Erickson’s tendencies are apparent, as he slips into voices, moves from one point of view to the next, laughs at himself.
Erickson, who is not especially big in body, has learned to use his emotional size to his advantage. In his Montana high school, he was voted class clown. He spent 16 years at Aspen’s Crystal Palace dinner theater, excelling in such oversized roles as the suicide-assisting Dr. Kevorkian; the “Lord of the Dance,” Michael Flatley, who became the object of ridicule in “Bored of the Dance”; and Pope Benedict XVI, portrayed as the dunce of a Pontiff who can’t help but put his foot in his mouth.
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Erickson’s gift for big physical comedy might be put to better use this summer than ever before. He is featured in two Theatre Aspen productions: the mock-terror musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” and the children’s production, “Seussical.” Both take advantage of Erickson’s antsy personality: In “Little Shop,” he plays eight characters. “And two of them are women!” Erickson enthuses, though audiences are most likely to remember the sadistic, motorcycling dentist, Orin Scrivello. In “Seussical,” he wears just one hat – but it’s the role of the Cat in the Hat, who as the quasi-tour guide of the action gets to try on many voices and personalities.
The physicality Erickson puts into “Little Shop” doesn’t end on the stage. The multiple roles require layers and layers of clothing, which he peels off with the assistance of a professional dresser. “I have three pairs of nylons to cover up my legs, I refused to shave,” he said. “Watching me get undressed is funnier than anything I do onstage. It’s just flailing around backstage, someone yelling, ’30 seconds!'”
It’s a bit hard to see Erickson translating those mannerisms into straight roles, but apparently he is a natural in that capacity too. An athlete as a kid, Erickson’s mother forced him, at 13, to try out for a production of “Oliver.” He got the title role, and fell in love with theater. “The actors ” I thought, these people are nice, they’re cool,” he said. At Montana State, he majored in music, and went on to play in touring bands on both coasts. But after a stint in Philadelphia, he realized how much he missed the mountains. In the mid-’80s, he sold everything he owned to come to Colorado and audition for two jobs: at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre, and the Crystal Palace. He was offered both jobs, and opted for Boulder, where he did book shows like “Into the Woods” and “West Side Story.”
After six years in Boulder, Erickson opted for the mountains and the small-town life offered by Aspen, and the social satire and bigger paycheck offered by the Crystal Palace.
Erickson knew little about theater ” he says he hasn’t learned much in the ensuing years ” but coasted along on natural ability. When he tried out for the part of Che Guevara in “Evita,” he recognized Che’s name, but nothing more about the South American revolutionary. Erickson got the role.
“I’m just a Montana guy. And the theater world, that’s different,” he said. “People expect me to know all about the New York theater, and I don’t at all. I audition, get a character, and then I learn it. It’s just my own craziness in my head that I put to good use.”
After 22 years of steady jobs in dinner theater, Erickson was a bit shaken up by the prospect of having to audition for his role in “Little Shop.” But his brand of big and over-the-top was just the right mode for the musical.
“I was almost petrified. I thought, ‘Well, they’ll probably make me tone it down,'” he said. “But no, they let me go with it, big physical humor. But I commit to the bigness. I make it part of me.”