He felt more at home playing a doctor onstage than being one in real life.
Four years ago, Aleks Knezevich made a decision that could be a plot line in the dramas and musicals he so loves. He quit medical school — while playing Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde) in a national tour of “Jekyll & Hyde.”
If he’s had second thoughts about casting aside the stability and prestige of medicine for the uncertain, improvised life of an actor, he doesn’t share them. He’d rather pursue his passion, even with its known and unknown challenges, than something noble but less inspired.
“I’m completely at peace with the decision — ecstatic and beyond happy,” he says. “I could’ve had an ‘M.D.’ next to my name and it doesn’t excite me. I wake up every day excited to go to rehearsals.”
Knezevich stars in “Disney’s Newsies,” the musical by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Harvey Fierstein (“Kinky Boots”) about newspaper hawkers who go on strike in 1890s New York. Opening Friday at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the show is his fourth at a theater that has become his artistic home.
He’s played too-cool-for-school Danny Zuko in “Grease,” stolid Lancelot in “Camelot” and cartoon villain Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast.” He is well-suited to tackle the role of strike leader Jack Kelly in “Newsies,” said director and theater co-owner Michael Brindisi.
“We know he’s got a great voice, great body, looks good and moves well,” Brindisi said. “But the real surprise is his superb acting. Jack Kelly is awkward, especially around women, and Aleks captures that with real humor.”
Trauma led to medicine
By his own admission, theater is a passion that had called to him for a long time, but he didn’t always listen.
Knezevich, 32, was born in Belgrade to a Minnesotan father and Serbian mother at a time when the Yugoslav federation was headed toward a brutal civil war. His mother, Marija, stayed in the Serbian capital with the children while his father, Dushan, completed law school in the United States.
As a 5-year-old, Knezevich had a traumatic experience that pushed him toward medicine.
“I walked into Mom’s apartment in Belgrade and ran to my grandma to show her the toys she’d bought me,” he said. “She was dead on the floor. She’d collapsed. I said, ‘I want to help people keep their grandmothers around longer.’ ”
That sad, confusing experience planted a seed that he continued to nurture after the deeply religious family reunited in Duluth.
The relocation to America was startling.
“I entered my first day of kindergarten not speaking a word of English,” he recalled. “But with the help of my [paternal] grandmother and some counselors, I picked up the language in six months.”
Two years later, the family moved to the Twin Cities, where he flowered. In sixth grade, his music teacher noticed his affinity for singing, but other dreams were dancing in his head.
For a time he wanted to become an NBA player. He became something of a jock, although an introspective one, making the football team at Woodbury High School.
“I was never an aggressive kid,” he said. “I got picked on a lot when I was younger but never wanted to fight anybody over it.”
But he quit football in his senior year to play Pharaoh in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” He cottoned to the simpatico spirits and the communal ethos of the theater kids.
“I ended up finding my place,” he said.
Still, the ghost of his dead grandmother haunted him. Knezevich majored in biochemistry at the University of Minnesota. That pleased his mother, a home health aide who had been a nurse in Serbia.
She was perhaps the most disappointed by his decision to quit medical school.
“She has barely ever taken a vacation her whole life,” he said. “I see how hard she works and I know she doesn’t want to see me scrape by.”
Like many theater professionals, Knezevich also has day jobs, working in restaurants and as a wine consultant for Domace Vino, a company owned by his cousin.
‘Theater’s my passion’
While he wanted to heal with medicine, he likes the sense of play he finds in the theater. Knezevich relishes getting under the skin of characters in a safe space where exploration is encouraged. And he loves the camaraderie of the rehearsal room.
The stage also led to romance for him. He met his future wife and champion, fellow actor Jessica Fredrickson, playing love interests in a 2010 production of “The Light in the Piazza” at the former Bloomington Civic Theatre (they were also cast in a later 2013 production of the same work at Theatre Latté Da).
“Theater’s not just my job but my passion,” he said. “I wish I’d spent more time studying theater and dance.”
Chanhassen choreographer and co-owner Tamara Kangas Erickson has heard variations of that statement from Knezevich for years.
“He’s got the acting piece dialed in and his vocals are, without question, awesome,” she said. “He doesn’t have the dance language but he’s a good mover.”
His “Newsies” character was originated on Broadway by Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan, who imbued the role with cynicism and some creepiness. Knezevich hopes to bring more cheer and youthfulness to round out the character.
His work ethic distinguishes Knezevich from many of his peers, Kangas Erickson said.
“He comes in ready, prepared, on time,” she said. “Why would you take a weekend off when you’re employed for four months? A lot of the younger kids are like, ‘Oh, I have a family thing. Can I have a show off?’ Aleks doesn’t come with a sense of entitlement, but gratitude. He’s grateful that he’s able to pursue his craft at a place committed to high-quality work.”
Director Brindisi shares a similar fondness for Knezevich.
“He’s gentle, warm and extremely respectful,” said Brindisi. “When you find someone who’s that good and that much fun to work with, you want to keep him around.”
He measured his words.
“Aleks is turning into my new leading man,” the director said.
Just what the doctor ordered.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 • Twitter: @rohanpreston
Who: Composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman and book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Michael Brindisi.
Where: Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, 501 W. 78th St., Chanhassen.
When: 8 p.m. Fri.; 1 & 8 p.m. Sat.; 6:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Sept. 29.
Tickets: $50-$89. 952-934-1525 or chanhassendt.com.