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posted: 8/16/2013 4:00 AM

Suburban performers make an impression on Chicago stages

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  • Michael Finley, left, stars in Signal Ensemble Theatre's "This is War."

    Michael Finley, left, stars in Signal Ensemble Theatre's "This is War."
    Photo by Johnny Knight

  • Donterrio Johnson

    Donterrio Johnson

  • Emily Leahy appears as young Fiona in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "Shrek: The Musical."

    Emily Leahy appears as young Fiona in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "Shrek: The Musical."
    Photo by Liz Lauren


An undergraduate who juggles classes and a burgeoning career. An actor/choreographer who teaches kids in his spare time. And a middle school student who, at 12, is already a seasoned veteran.

These three actors with suburban ties are currently making their marks on Chicago stages.

Michael Finley

As a child, Michael Finley looked for his niche. He tried sports, specifically baseball, but that didn't prove to be his forte. So his mother suggested he, his siblings and some friends get involved with theater.

"I dug it. It became my thing and I pursued it further," said the Arlington Heights native, currently co-starring in Signal Ensemble Theatre's U.S. premiere of "This is War," Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch's drama about Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan in a Taliban stronghold.

Finley performed in school productions and community theater and spent four years as a member of The Expressions, Buffalo Grove High School's award-winning show choir. He made his professional debut as a sophomore in the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre's "High School Musical" ("the first time I was paid to act," he says). He returned two years later for "A Christmas Carol."

"That cemented my desire to make acting my career," said Finley, who as a theater major at Northwestern University found himself gravitating toward straight drama.

"I do love being part of a musical theater cast," said Finley, a senior, "but I'm drawn to contemporary playwrights and a more natural, realistic style of acting."

It's the style required for "This is War," which Finley says addresses the situations soldiers face on and off the battlefield.

This isn't Finley's first experience with Chicago's storefront scene. In January, the 21-year-old appeared in A Red Orchid Theatre's production of Annie Baker's "The Aliens," in the process juggling a full course load plus five shows a week.

Even before "The Aliens," Finley -- who has passed on other projects that conflicted with his studies -- considered what he'd do if he had to choose between finishing his degree and starting his career.

His solution is to graduate early, in December, and join the ranks of Chicago actors.

He may understudy an equity role later this fall, but beyond that his calendar is clear, save for some auditions.

"Hopefully something good will come of those," said Finley, who has begun to think of Chicago as his artistic home, but says he will go where the work is.

"I want to make sure I don't take anything for granted and that I keep working on my craft," he said.

Donterrio Johnson

When it came to auditioning for "The Color Purple," the second time proved the charm for Westmont resident Donterrio Johnson.

Five years ago, the Chicago native -- then a first-year student at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles -- auditioned for the national tour of the hit Broadway musical based on Alice Walker's novel and Steven Spielberg's film.

It didn't go well.

"I bombed because I wasn't prepared," said Johnson, who admits he didn't know his audition song as well as he thought.

He fared better at the auditions earlier this year for Mercury Theater Chicago's revival, opening Monday, Aug. 26, in which he appears as a member of the ensemble. It marks the biggest show he's done since returning to Chicago.

"Finally, I get to do what I've been trained for," said Johnson, whose recent Chicago area credits include "Rent" at BrightSide Theatre in Naperville and "Under a Rainbow Flag" at Pride Films and Plays.

Johnson has been performing since the eighth grade, when his singing earned him first place in a school talent show.

"I loved the reaction I got from the audience," Johnson said.

Although he's done some drama, Johnson says his heart is definitely in musical theater, not just as a performer but as a choreographer and director. He says wearing multiple hats helps him to better understand his colleagues, their artistic vision and how they can work together to achieve it.

He also teaches theater to children and teens at Aurora's Prisco Community Center as part of the Fox Valley Park District's Applause Theatre Series, which Johnson describes as "summer stock for kids."

"I try to instill in them a work ethic," he said. "It takes a lot of work and discipline to do theater."

But at the end of the day, what Johnson loves most is being onstage.

Next April, he heads to Boston where he'll serve as dance captain and appear in Fiddlehead Theatre Company's revival of Elton John's "Aida." It's one step closer to his ultimate goal: New York City.

Until then, "I go where the work is."

Emily Leahy

At 12, Emily Leahy, of Elk Grove Village, is already a stage veteran.

Leahy, who plays Young Fiona in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 75-minute, family-friendly production of "Shrek the Musical," made her debut at age 4 in Goodman Theatre's premiere of Rebecca Gilman's "Dollhouse."

She remembers playing with toys at the audition, but doesn't remember much about the production except that she enjoyed it so much that she cried for three months after the run ended.

More auditions led to roles in Fox Valley Repertory's "It's A Wonderful Life -- A Live Radio Play;" American Theater Company's Jeff Award-winning "The Big Meal;" "The Sound of Music" and "Gypsy" at Drury Lane Oakbrook and "Annie" and "The Music Man" at Aurora's Paramount Theatre among others.

"My favorite part is getting to learn new stuff, singing the new songs with a big company, doing all the blocking and dances," said Leahy who starts seventh grade this month.

At the "Shrek" audition, Leahy encountered a familiar face, director Rachel Rockwell, whom the young actress worked with at Drury Lane and Paramount. Not long after the audition, Leahy learned they'd be working together again.

"It's so cool to work with her," Leahy said, adding that Chicago Shakespeare Theater, located on Navy Pier, is "awesome," particularly when post-show entertainment includes a Ferris wheel.

But as Leahy knows from experience, not every audition comes with a job offer.

"I handle rejection pretty well," she said. "I know if I don't make a show or commercial, it isn't personal. I'm just a better fit for something else."

Indeed, being a professional actress isn't all fun and games for this young performer, who takes dance and tumbling, and whose favorite class is math. She does homework in the car on the way to the theater and when she's not onstage. After all, if her grades begin to slide, she'll have to give up acting.

So far, so good, although her professional commitments leave her little time for school shows.

"I haven't been in any plays in elementary school," she says. "I think they do shows in seventh and eighth grade. I may audition for them."

As for other youngsters interested in performing professionally, she encourages them to persevere.

"Just go for it," she said. "If you don't get it the first time, keep auditioning because you will be perfect for something."

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