Not long ago, a New York-based actress named Kelly Felthous found herself auditioning for Roxie Hart in the musical “Chicago.” The audition was in Manhattan, but the theater was the Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace.
“They were all about my monologue and my acting,” Felthous said over a recent breakfast in Lincoln Park. “They were not all about whether I was skinny enough, or whether I was a celebrity name, or how high I could sing.”
Felthous landed the Roxie gig. Barely any time later, she snagged another leading role in Chicagoland — beating out the formidable local competition to play Sally Bowles in the dark-hued Paramount Theatre production of “Cabaret.”
She liked that process too. “They told me, we don’t care what you sound like as long as you sound real,” she says. “I started to realize that what I like to do is what people actually appreciate here.”
By the time Felthous had landed her third gig, as Audrey in the current Drury Lane production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” she decided time was ripe for a move.
So she quit New York, sublet her place long-term and rented an apartment in Chicago. “I had spent a lot of my time in New York working in shows that played in Iowa,” she says, grinning. “I had come to see that is was possible in Chicago to have a nice apartment, friends and an actual life.”
Actresses move to Chicago all the time, of course. But Felthous had already toured for pushing two years in “Wicked,” understudying both Glinda and Nessarose, plus a national tour of “Grease,” and she’d done an early incarnation of the innovative cheerleading musical “Bring it On,” working with the likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andy Blankenbuehler. There are many similar credits. In the realm of musical theater pursued at that level, and with the pursuer very much in mid-career, conventional wisdom has it that you have to be in New York.
Felthous is bucking that trend.
“You’d be surprised how many people in the business told me not to move to Chicago,” she says.
Not really, I say back.
“But it just really seemed to me that people here were more willing to take a chance on someone without a celebrity name.”
Not really, I say back.
That’s because in those three leading roles, Felthous, a former child actress who grew up in San Diego and trained at New York University, has proven that she was hardly any kind of risk. There have been Roxie Harts who were stronger dancers, maybe stronger singers. Certainly performers with more pizzazz. But there hasn’t ever been a better actress in the part. Felthous’ version of Sally Bowles, which ranged to places few dare to go, seemed to be inspired by the likes of Michelle Williams or the late Natasha Richardson.
And Audrey? It’s worth driving to Oakbrook Terrace just to hear Felthous sing “Somewhere That’s Green.”
“I just think that song is so sad and true,” she says. “You don’t usually get the things that Audrey is singing about when you’re an artist. You don’t get the picket fence and the husband. You get student debt for having done a degree in acting. That’s your own version of a broken arm and a black eye. Sometimes, all I want is to go to soccer games and cut up orange slices. That is what I was actually singing about.”
Until you actually have to cut up orange slices.
We next talk about “Wicked.”
“If you love singing and being a bubbly personality then you love Glinda best in the first act,” Felthous says. “That’s when you get to sing ‘Popular.’ But the actresses who have played the part always love her best in Act 2. That’s when you really can be in the moment and, honestly, I’d rather sound bad than not be in the moment. When I played Nessa, they all used to call me the ‘snot-and-tears Nessa,’ but I think there always is something beautiful in watching someone just not look good at all. When you look awful, the audience knows exactly how you feel.”
That set of views would makes sense to anyone who saw Felthous play Sally Bowles in Aurora. At the moments that really mattered, she looked not just awful but wrecked.
Felthous starts to talk about how she never wants to be the kind of musical-theater actress who “goes dead behind the eyes just to be able to sing the high note.” You get the sense that she’d rather just skip the high note. And would. Every time.
“You know,” she says, grinning again, “there is no such thing as the single tear you see in musicals all the time. It does not exist in life.”
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.