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RFHS grad: From ensemble to leading man

<i>Submitted photos</i>1 / 2
Tom Rusterholz, 2005 RFHS graduate, stars as Link Larkin in Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's production of 'Hairspray.' He is joined by Therese Walth playing Tracy Turnblad, Kasono Mwanza, as Seaweed and Kaija Pellinen, as Penny Pingleton, in 'Hairspray,' now showing at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. <i>Submitted photos</i>2 / 2

River Falls native Tom Rusterholz has taken his love of acting to the "big time" by going from an ensemble or supporting role in 'Hairspray' to one of the leads, playing Link Larkin.

Now staring in the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's production of 'Hairspray,' the 2005 RFHS graduate has seen his career advance since joining the production in summer 2011.

When asked what the difference is between the two roles, Rusterholz explained, "It's very different -- I do less physically challenging stuff on stage, but it is more mentally challenging. It requires more concentration and focus."

Since Link is a well-known character, he has a more flushed out role than the roles within the ensemble cast. Staying in character is more mentally taxing than a character whose role is less defined.

Originally an understudy for Link when he joined the production in July 2011, Rusterholz auditioned and won the role after the original actor left.

With only 2 ½ weeks of rehearsal Rusterholz took on the role of Link and now performs eight shows a week, with two shows on Wednesday and Saturday.

"It's a full-time job," he said about rehearsing and performing.

Acting since he was 8-years-old, Rusterholz was a mainstay on the local stages, including performing with the River Falls Community Theatre and The Phipps in Hudson.

According to Rusterholz, he has appeared in 'My Fair Lady,' 'Oliver!,' 'Our Town,' 'And the World Goes 'Round,' 'The Pirates of Penzance,' and 'Beauty and the Beast," while working with the St. Croix Valley Summer Theater in River Falls.

Rusterholz, son of Becky Kleager and David Rusterholz, attended both Greenwood and Rocky Branch Elementary schools.

After graduating from RFHS, Rusterholz attended UM-Duluth. While in college he performed with the Renegade Theater Company in 'A New Brain' and with the Duluth Playhouse in 'White Christmas.'

Change is a comin'

After living in Minneapolis for the past several years, Rusterholz is planning to move to New York after the show wraps up the end of May.

With the support of his parents, Rusterholz feels it is " time to go" (to New York.)

According to Rusterholz, his parents are excited for him to move and explore his talent in New York.

Although working on Broadway in shows like 'Chicago' or 'West Side Story' would be a great opportunity, Rusterholz is more looking for the opportunity to " consistently and make a living" while doing something he loves.

Rusterholz has been spending his time as of late saving money and talking with veteran actors about the next step in his career.

He's optimistic about his move to New York, but he also would not be disappointed if he came back to the area. "Minneapolis is a fantastic market," he said.

Timeless theme

Although 'Hairspray' is set in 1962 Philadelphia, the subject -- bullying -- is timeless.

'Hairspray' is about respecting each other -- despite our differences -- be it skin color, body type, etc. Rusterholz plays a character who's challenged to question the views he was raised with and change the way he sees the world.

"The song (in 'Hairspray') "I Know Where I've Been" is incredibly powerful to me, as I feel it is an anthem for people of any downtrodden community with a violent and prejudiced past," he said.

As an actor Rusterholz has imagined how his character may view his (Link's) world.

According to Rusterholz, Link is initially motivated by the prospect of scoring a recording contract. He dates a mean girl, Amber, because her mother promises to get him what he wants.

"Amber pushes him around and treats people badly," Rusterholz says.

When Link meets Tracy, somebody whom Amber ridicules, Link is conflicted about how he feels about bullying.

Rusterholz says Link asks himself, "When do I finally take this dream (getting a recording contract) and say 'there's something more important.'"

In the end Link realizes that standing up for others' rights is more important than pursuing the recording contract.

"Fortunately Link serves as an example of someone who does make the right choice in the end, and in that way also shows that it's okay to change your mind as long as what you believe in what you're choosing," he said.

Though not a victim of bullying himself, Rusterholz feels the message of the play is relevant.

"'Hairspray' resonates with people today in two distinct ways. I think the bullying we see in the show is a lot like the bullying that is happening in our schools," said Rusterholz. "

"I imagine there are many kids who look at the way Tracy is being put-down and verbally attacked and understand how she feels in those moments."

Rusterholz's character is another role model, "Link gives kids a role model for when they see bullying happening to other people."

"Link explores both sides of being in that position -- at first he backs down from confrontation and chooses the more selfish option, but comes back at the end to stand up for what he feels is right at the expense of his personal gain," he said.

Rusterholz hopes, "...that kids who see this show can come away from it having learned something from Link -- that standing up and fighting for what you feel is right is more important than being popular or getting everything you want."

'Hairspray' runs through May 26 at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater. Evening shows are held Tuesday-Sunday with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday.

Call 952-934-1525 or 800-362-3515 for reservations or go to

*Please note Rusterholz will not be performing the week of March 12-18.

Jillian Dexheimer

Jillian Dexheimer has been a copy editor and reporter for the River Falls Journal since 2011. She previously worked for the River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. Dexheimer holds a sociology degree from UW-River Falls.