Libertyville teacher shares Aurora stage with Kristin Chenoweth
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Allison Zabelin is a fan of Kristin Chenoweth and Aurora's Paramount Theatre.
So she's right at home Saturday night in the second row, center section, when early in the second act, the star of "An Intimate Evening with Kristin Chenoweth" asks for a volunteer to sing a duet with her of "For Good," one of several showstoppers from Broadway's "Wicked."
Hands shoot up all over the packed theater, and Allison's mom, Barbara Sered-Zabelin, leans over and gently suggests she should raise her hand, too.
So Allison, who teaches orchestra to fourth- through eighth-graders at schools in Libertyville District 70, waves just like the smart kid in class who knows all the answers.
Except Chenoweth looks to her right and picks somebody else, a woman sitting to the side who turns out to be a graphic artist.
Chenoweth asks if the artist knows all the words to "For Good" and the answer turns out to be not so good. So the Tony- and Emmy Award-winning singer and actress, who has appeared on TV's "Glee," in numerous movies and, of course, starred as Glinda the Good Witch on Broadway opposite Idina Menzel, moves to the center section.
Let Allison pick up the story:
"She says, 'You in the scarf,' and she comes walking right toward me," Allison says. "The moment she recognized I exist, she sent me right into a state of bliss."
Chenoweth calls Allison on stage and the whole thing starts to feel like an out-of-body experience.
"Oh my God," Allison thinks as she climbs the stairs to share the stage with Kristin Chenoweth, "what if I don't remember the words?"
It's nerve-wracking enough just to think about speaking before that many people, she says. But singing? A signature song from one of the most popular musicals of all time? The part Menzel sang on Broadway? With Kristin Chenoweth? In front of her mom and dad and the principal of one of her schools and all those people?
A life of music
Allison Zabelin grew up in Aurora, and music, it seems, always has been a part of her.
She took lessons at Aurora Suzuki Violin. She sang with the West Aurora High School choir -- so she already was excited Saturday when, at the end of the first act, Chenoweth introduced a bunch of kids from that school who performed a couple songs with her.
Of course, they had the chance to rehearse earlier in the day so they knew what they were doing. They didn't suddenly raise their hand when the star of the show asked for volunteers.
Allison got her bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois and then a master's from VanderCook College of Music in Chicago.
She began her teaching career as an orchestra, guitar and general music instructor at West Chicago High School.
A year later, the Highland Park resident began teaching orchestra in several Libertyville schools (along with Spanish during the summer).
"It's kind of great," she says about her teaching gig. "I start teaching them in fourth grade and get to work with them and watch them grow all the way through eighth grade."
When she's not in school, she performs as the principal violinist for the Fox Valley Orchestra. (She wants you to know the orchestra's next concert is at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3, at Aurora University's Crimi Auditorium, 407 S. Calumet.)
Just about everyone who knows her knows she loves music and teaching, including Lori Poelking, the principal who was in the Saturday night audience. Poelking isn't surprised when Allison volunteers to sing.
"She's one to embrace the moment" Poelking says. "She is never without energy, and that smile of hers is with her all the time."
Lots of shaking
So now Allison is on stage and this time she's the one walking toward Chenoweth.
"I was shaking," she says.
The good news is, she's got the opening lines of "For Good" down pat. The bad news is that Chenoweth says, "I'll go first."
But no matter, Chenoweth takes her hand and, as they stand there in the spotlight, Allison thinks, "This is, like, bliss."
When it comes her time to sing, both Chenoweth and her pianist keep a close watch. When they sense Allison struggling with a lyric, they mouth a couple words of the line to remind her where they are.
At some point, Allison even starts to do a little harmonizing. And all the while she's thinking, "I'm singing and holding hands with Kristin Chenoweth."
"I was nervous," she says. "But being a person who does perform, stage fright comes with the territory. I tell my students to turn your nerves into excitement. That's what I tried to do."
This is not to suggest that Allison has just a touch of ham in her, but when the song ends to what folks in the theater world like to call thunderous applause, she doesn't seem in much of a hurry to leave the stage.
"I was feeling gratitude and honor and happiness," she says.
When she gets back to her seat, she's still shaking.
"Three songs later, I felt like I had run a marathon or something," she says. "I was still out of breath."
'She was with us'
When the show is over -- Chenoweth closes with "Smile," sung without a microphone -- Allison is invited backstage to meet the star. Her mom and dad, Don, come, too.
They get to spend only a few minutes together, Kristin and Allison, but it's a couple minutes Allison won't soon forget.
"She's just electric," Allison says. "She has one of the best voices."
The two of them hug, just like they did during the performance, and talk briefly about "the joy of music and how music can change the world."
Chenoweth is scheduled to meet other guests, so her people are moving it along like star's "people" are wont to do. But Chenoweth won't be rushed.
"When she was with us," Allison says, "she was totally with us."
Poelking sees her after the show. Allison's parents tell her how incredibly proud they are of their daughter. Poelking tweets out how proud she is of Allison, too.
"She was still beaming and clearly flying," Poelking says.
Flying, of course, is part of the gig if you're going to sing the Idina Menzel part in a song from "Wicked." But unlike Idina, Allison didn't need wires for her feet to leave the ground after sharing a stage with Kristin.
So now that it's over, is Allison going to raise her hand the next time some star of TV, movies and Broadway asks for a volunteer to come up on stage and perform for a theater full of people?
Well, of course she is.
"It was," she says, "so cool."