Our belle on Broadway
It’s probably a safe bet that very few community theatre companies can claim having a musical choreographed by an actress playing the lead in the U.S. national tour of a hit Broadway show, while she was on tour. But it happened to Uxbridge Musical Theatre (the forerunner of OnStage Uxbridge) in the fall of 2003, for our production of Neil Simon’s Sweet Charity.
After auditions, we discovered that many of the local dancers who’d choreographed for us before – Sophianne Roberts, Carey Nicholson, Michelle Charette, Nancy Einsmann – were in the cast, so we hit upon a novel solution: to split the job amongst them, having each choreograph one or two songs.
Being my usual delusional self, I thought I’d include in the mix the young woman who had choreographed a number of shows for us in our early years – Fiddler on the Roof, Bye Bye Birdie and South Pacific – but whose star was on the rise, and who was, at the time, Sophie in the U.S. national tour of Mamma Mia! I asked if she would tackle Sweet Charity’s best-known song, “Hey, Big Spender”, and when she agreed, I assumed she would e-mail me some written notes, which one of our other choreographers would interpret for the cast.
But Chilina Kennedy is a perfectionist. So what she did was ask her Mamma Mia! castmates to play our dancers, and volunteer for a number of rehearsals in a hall backstage at the theatre in Denver where the tour had stopped for a couple of weeks. She choreographed those dancers, taped them learning the song, then shipped the tape special delivery to us (we still play it now and again for fun).
We had gotten to know this amazing performer when she showed up to audition for the summer season of professional repertory I did in 1998 at the Academy Theatre in Lindsay. We were all blown away by the talent of this youngster, still in the musical theatre program at Sheridan College. There were a lot of great things about the shows that summer, and one of the best things about them was the beginning of a personal and professional relationship with Chilina Kennedy.
She choreographed Fiddler for us the following winter, her final year at Sheridan, and was able to come back the next two winters as well, fallow times before she left for Prince Edward Island to truly launch her career in Anne of Green Gables. My wife and I went to Charlottetown to see her, and her job in that show (particularly the “Apology” song) ranks #1 in the thousands of musical theatre performances I’ve seen over the years. And Chilina’s professional wanderings have given us the excuse for lots more interesting travel as well; we’ve seen her on stage in San Diego, Philadelphia, Halifax, Hartford, all over Ontario and most recently, on Broadway.
After Anne, she got the touring gig with Mamma Mia!, then came home to star for three summers at the Shaw Festival. Then she came to stay with us in our Uxbridge home for several months while we were honoured with her one and only directing job, Camelot at the Music Hall, in January of 2009. Right after that, she left for the first of three summers at Stratford, where she reached true star status with performances in West Side Story and Evita, among others. A revival of Jesus Christ Superstar was taken to Broadway, her first taste of New York.
The following summer, 2013, she returned to Charlottetown to play the first role (so far!) ever created for her, Evangeline. And only a couple of months after that, on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, she came back to Uxbridge for the only time she has actually performed here, in a staged reading of Kennedy’s Children, by Robert Patrick.
The summer of 2014 was mostly dedicated to another adventure – motherhood – but by March of 2015 she was back on Broadway to star as songwriter Carole King in the smash hit Beautiful. And that is where she’s remained till this month, when she began a long-deserved vacation. She returns to Beautiful on Broadway in September.
She won’t be resting all that time, however. On April 18 and 19, she performs an evening of Rodgers & Hammerstein hits with the Toronto Symphony. And then, we were recently overjoyed to learn, she will join the touring company of Beautiful as it performs in Toronto from June 27 to August 20. It’s rare for a Broadway star to perform with a touring company of the same show, but Chilina’s a rare person, and Ontario’s her home. She couldn’t resist.
So busloads of Uxbridgers will be headed down to the Ed Mirvish Theatre to see their friend. It’s not a stretch to call Chilina our town’s very own Broadway belle, because she would tell you we played an important role in her development as an artist.
Personally, my wife and I have been delighted to watch Chilina grow as an actress, and as a person, over the last two decades. We can say we knew her when…