Elgin native Courtney Reed had never seen a Broadway musical.
Or even been to New York.
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Where it all beganSoon-to-be Broadway star Courtney Reed credits two major influences in her life while growing up in Elgin.
"Gould's Dance Academy, with Donna Gould and her amazing faculty," Reed said. "That was really where I started falling in love with the arts. I think they still have classes not far from where I went to elementary school."
Then there was the Children's Theatre of Elgin.
"That's what made me fall in love with theater," she said. "We did these massive productions, very professionally done, well-thought out. The sets, the costumes. A lot of people put a lot of love into these shows."
Two teachers stood out as major influences at Larkin High School's Visual and Performing Arts Academy: Holly McNeill and Sandy Bucheit.
"I still speak with Holly to this day," Reed said. "Actually, several Larkin teachers came to New York to see me in 'Mamma Mia.'"
Yet, six months after graduating from Roosevelt University's theater program, there she was on 42nd Street going to her first rehearsal for the Broadway musical "Mamma Mia."
"It was crazy!" Reed said. "I flew to New York by myself. My first rehearsal was the next day. So, I had to take the train and it takes me right to 42nd Street."
On her way, a sign caught her eye.
"I look up and there's a massive billboard for 'Mamma Mia.' It was all so exciting! Taking it all in. It was overwhelming!"
The story gets better.
After playing Jasmine in the Seattle and Toronto workshops for Disney's "Aladdin" (based on the movie starring the voice of Robin Williams as the genie), Reed will continue performing her role with the Feb. 26 launch of the musical at the New Amsterdam Theatre, Broadway and 42nd Street.
"I still can't believe this!" she burbled. "It's unbelievable the number of people who've auditioned for this show and this role in particular. I read it was record-breaking, the number of people who auditioned for this show."
(Our Manhattan sources confirm that "Aladdin" casting directors spent a couple of years looking for just the right performers.)
"People in this industry are ridiculously talented," Reed said. "I think in my case it was being the right type at the right time."
And with the right skill set, we should add.
When Reed was a little girl back in Elgin, she watched "Aladdin" on home video over and over. The Middle Eastern tale revolves around a street kid who pretends to be a prince -- with the help of a wisecracking genie -- to win the heart of the spirited Princess Jasmine.
"Even then, it was still special, because Jasmine was the first ethnic Disney princess I'd ever seen."
Reed was born "in the heart of Elgin," as she described it, the daughter of Tipawan Reed, head of a not-for-profit organization, and Porter Reed, now retired from the Illinois State Board of Education.
Courtney Reed graduated from Larkin's Visual and Performing Arts Academy where she majored in drama. From there, she trained at the Theatre Conservatory of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.
She nabbed a few jobs on TV commercials, worked in industrial videos and the like. She also acted in area stage productions.
Then, her agent booked Reed into the cast of "Mamma Mia" in 2006 without auditioning her in New York.
From there, the Elgin powder keg began exploding by being cast in the Tony-winning musical "In the Heights" (she played Carla) and by appearing in TV roles on "Law & Order: SVU," "White Collar," "NYC 22" and "CSI: NY." She also played Andrea in "Once on This Island" for New Jersey's prestigious Paper Mill Playhouse.
Reed credits her sister for all of this.
"My older sister took a lot of dance classes, and I really did follow in her footsteps," Reed said. "I remember feeling so free onstage. That was like the best time of my life! I always wanted to do something I was interested in and had so much fun doing."
She paused, then added, "This was sort of an automatic thing that I would go into performing. I didn't have any other skills."
Even though Reed has already played Jasmine on two pre-Broadway runs, she said making her "Aladdin" debut in the Big Apple is a little different.
"It's so real now because critics will come and the theater community will come to see it," she said. "This is it!"
But at heart, she'll remain a girl from deep in the heart of Elgin. She wouldn't have it any other way.
"I think people in Toronto are very close to Midwesterners," she observed. "New Yorkers seem to be very fast-paced. Everything is pretty much to the point.
"L.A. people sort of have hidden agendas. Chicagoans? They take a little more time. They remember to say hi. They take the time to ask how your day is going. New Yorkers don't have time for that. They don't go out of their way.
"Chicago is a very special city. People are kind. They'll look at you and they'll smile."
-- Dann Gire
Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a great feature, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.