Role in 'Anastasia' musical a childhood dream for suburban theater veteran
Suburban Chicago theater veteran Tari Kelly remembers seeing the Don Bluth animated feature "Anastasia" in a movie theater back in 1997. The actress felt that this fanciful myth about an orphaned woman -- who may or may not have royal roots -- posing as a lost Russian Romanov princess should be turned into a Broadway musical immediately.
Instead, it took two decades for "Anastasia" to finally make a Broadway debut in 2017. And now the national tour, with Kelly in the cast, is about to raise the curtain in Chicago on a two-week run at the James M. Nederlander Theatre.
"I really thought that the music and the story was beautiful," said Kelly about her first impressions of "Anastasia," which featured the Academy Award-nominated song "Journey to the Past" by the Broadway songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens ("Ragtime," "Once on This Island").
Kelly's "Anastasia" ambitions made a lot of sense. A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Kelly had been touring North America starting in 1995 as a "Silly Girl" in "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" -- the first of many animated screen-to-stage musicals including "The Lion King" and "Aladdin" that would also go on to became Broadway blockbusters.
Kelly missed out on Broadway's "Anastasia." But when it came time to cast the national tour, she was surprised at how quickly she won the comic role of Countess Lily.
"I guess they knew what they were looking for," Kelly said. "I liken (Countess Lily) to when you're watching a Pixar movie and there are those jokes that only the adults get and that go over the heads of kids -- that's my role."
Longtime Chicago theater fans will remember Kelly for playing many leading musical comedy roles. She won acclaim at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire as Millie in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" in 2006 and Janet in "The Drowsy Chaperone" in 2011. Kelly also wowed as Ado Annie in "Oklahoma!" for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2013.
St. Louis native Jason Michael Evans is one of Kelly's "Anastasia" co-stars. His major suburban Chicago credit was starring as heartthrob Conrad Birdie in "Bye Bye Birdie" in 2016 for Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.
"It's a meaty and deep role," said Evans about his zealous Russian character of Gleb in "Anastasia." "It's about as opposite as Conrad Birdie as it could be."
Evans has never seen the film of "Anastasia," which is just as well. Gleb was created especially for the stage version by playwright Terrence McNally.
"The villain in the film is the ghost of Rasputin," Evans said. "Just having him floating around with a sidekick talking bat (named Bartok) -- that might have been hard to make work on a Broadway stage. I think my character works better to maintain some sense of realism for the show."
Yet Kelly reveals that Bartok is still a part of the tour, albeit one that audiences don't see.
"We actually have a stuffed toy Bartok backstage that is sometimes hung from the rafters," Kelly said, laughing. "The stagehands will lower him down sometimes as our company mascot. It makes us all laugh."
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Location: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Shows: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also March 31), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (also April 3), from March 26 to April 7