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BWW Interviews: Michelle DeJean - Proud to Play Miss Mona in TUTS' BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS

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Michelle DeJean, starring as Miss Mona in the upcoming and anticipated production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas took time out of her busy rehearsal schedule to chat with me about life, theatre, touring, New York, Roxie and Miss Mona. As sincere and charming as she is, there is no doubt that the stars are about to shine big and bright deep in the heart of Texas!

You spent much of your childhood training to be a dancer. These experiences included attending the Houston Ballet Academy and HSPVA (Houston School for the Performing and Visual Arts) as a Dance major. Then at 16, while a student at TUTS’ Humphreys School, you portrayed Liesl in The Sound of Music. What experiences brought about the change from strictly studying dance to becoming a burgeoning musical theatre actress?

There was something missing, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I loved ballet, and it was all I had ever done. But I had also grown up watching movie musicals, which I loved very much. My mother sang to me a lot as a child. In fact, she says I could sing whole songs before I could speak whole sentences. So, through my dance training, somewhere down the line, I figured there was something missing. I decided that when I found out about the Humphrey school, that this was available to me, my mom and I decided that this would be something that I could try, and as soon as I got here I realized that was what I want. They helped me find my voice. And being able to be on stage and incorporate my dance, and be able to sing, and act, to be able to utilize all three was a missing link, I guess. It made me feel complete. I found that was my niche; that was what I really loved to do. So, I came into musical theatre with a very strong background, which was great, because I had no prior singing or acting experience. So, the dance part carried me through the beginning.

After reprising your role as Liesl in Seattle, Washington, you began the part of your “touring career.” What was it like to travel all over the world and perform on tour?

It has its advantages and disadvantages, as anything does. I definitely got to see places that I don’t think I would have ever traveled to; a lot of places within the US that I would never have seen. Not only the obvious of going to travel to these exotic places and then some small towns that I normally wouldn't get to. It was very interesting to me to see how the audiences in each region, or each part of the world, how they would react differently to the same subject matter. Every city would be different laughs at different places and some very boisterous audiences and some very quiet audiences. In Japan, they are dead silent for the whole performance, and at the end they go crazy, but during the performance you think, “I’m dying up here. They hate me!” But that’s just their culture. Out of respect, they don’t make a lot of noise during a performance. It’s fun and it’s interesting. The downside of it, of course, is living out of a suitcase. After a while, that gets pretty old, and you better like the people you are with because that is the only people you get to see. You get to see a lot of gymnasiums. You get to catch up on your movies when you’re on the road. My quest was always to find the best sushi restaurant in the city. So, I would say, at the end of the day, it was a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I’ve been very fortunate in the places that I’ve seen. I’ve also seen some not so nice places, but overall, I think, it was a great experience.

When the Chicago tour ended, you joined the Broadway cast. I’m sure that was a thrilling and exciting time. Where there any differences or extra challenges moving from the tour to Broadway?

No, there weren’t any new challenges because it was the exact same show. The show wasn’t any different. In fact, I would say, there were fewer challenges because the travel was not involved anymore, so I was actually able to sleep in the same bed every night and unpack, which was very nice. Yes, there was always the thrill of performing on Broadway for the first time. But, to tell you the truth, and I mean no disrespect, but that first night on Broadway could have been any city to me. It just was a new audience, a new town, a new stage. It took me a few performances to realize, “Wow, I’m in New York on Broadway!” The first night, it was like the “okay, next city” sort of thing. I wouldn’t say there were any more challenges. It’s just that you get a little more respect, I think, when you’re on Broadway. It’s just how people conceive it. The touring companies, more often than not, are Broadway people that are just touring. So, it’s not that the company is better or anything; it’s just the stigma of being on Broadway.

As a member of the Broadway production of Chicago, you moved from the role of swing, to Mona, to Roxie. At first, it seemed that you would only play Roxie for one Monday night performance. What was it like to receive the call that said the role was yours?

Gosh, you even saying that brings tears to my eyes. (Pauses to wipe eyes) That was pretty amazing. (Pauses) Yeah, I really thought that was my one shot deal. In fact, I was told that was my one shot deal. Because they initially didn’t think I was right for the role. I was hired as the understudy, but they never thought they would put me on because there was a cover and there was another understudy and all of that. But it is part of the union rules that every understudy has to go on. I don’t know if it is once a year or once every certain amount of months or something, but just so they can have it, I mean, besides the understudy rehearsals. So, I really thought that was my one shot deal, so I got everybody that I knew to be there for that one night. I’m like, “If you wanna see me do it, this is it. So, come on. Come one for all.” (Pauses) So, yes, they put me on the next night, and the next night, and the next night. And by Friday, I got the call. (Pauses) I think I was pretty much like I am right now, just kinda speechless. It was probably one of the most exciting days in my life to get that call. That’s everybody’s dream.

On Broadway, you played Roxie for three years (2005-2008). Were there any unique challenges to playing such a demanding role eight times a week for so long?

Yes. It is the same with anything, once you get into the routine, you realize what you have to do to maintain. So, I didn’t go out after the show at night. I didn’t walk too much during the day because my legs would get tired. You just learn what you can and can’t do. You learn what foods you can eat during the day. If I eat this, I’m going to be bloated. If I eat this, I’m going to feel too full and too heavy. If I eat this, it’s not enough. But I guess the initial challenge is finding out what your routine has to be so you can give your best performance eight shows a week. And once that’s done, for me, it was no problem. Once I found my routine, there was no big deal. It is establishing what that routine will be.

What is your favorite memory from performing in New York?

Oh my gosh. (Pauses) I think my favorite memory would be that first Monday night performance as Roxie, and just being scared out of my mind, but having this amazing audience response to what I was doing, and taking that bow at the end of that show and knowing, one, I’d made it, I hadn’t screwed up, I hadn't hurt anybody (Laughs), and that the audience really liked it. It was just a great show, and it happened to be an amazing audience, as well. All the stars aligned for me that night. Probably my best New York experience was that first night.

You are no stranger to playing iconic roles (i.e. Liesl and Roxie). How do you feel to be playing the iconic role of Miss Mona?

Wow. It’s another crook with a heart of gold. It’s an amazing role, and it’s absolutely part of our history, being from Texas. It’s a role that I never saw myself as playing. I never imagined, even this year when I saw it coming up, I just never even pictured myself as playing this role. It was somebody else that came to me, actually, and said, “You know, you should really think about this.” (Pauses) It’s a great role. Although, she is the criminal that the audience roots for, which is the same as Roxie. There is a part of her that is very different. I’ve never played a mother hen before, and she is very much a mother hen. So, that part is new to me. There are a lot of challenges in this role that I haven't had, that I’m experiencing for the first time. But, it’s a great show! It’s fun music, and it’s a fun script. And, the cast, this cast is really great. We’re really excited to get to the theatre tomorrow (Friday, June 1), and start working with the sets and costumes. It’s gonna be fun! I think this role is challenging, but, at the end of the day, I think I am going to have a really good time with her.

How does it feel to be returning home to the Houston area in a show about Texas that also got its start here in Houston?

Well, who could ask for anything better than that, right? No, I’m very proud. I’m very proud to be returning here in such an iconic role in an iconic show that hasn't been here in so long. June Terry, who’s one of Houston’s leading ladies of all time, played her last time, and that’s the last time they [Houston audiences] saw it here. So, I have some big shoes to fill, and I believe whole-heartedly that I am up for the challenge. I’m very proud, but also I’m really...really hoping that I do it justice. That I do June Justice. And, that I do Edna Milton justice, the real madam. Unfortunately, she’s not around anymore to see it. And to do Carlin Glynn, who originated it, justice because I think that maybe she’s coming to see the show.

That will be a lot of fun.

Yeah, really fun, as long as I don’t know she’s in the audience (Laughs) until after the show. I hate knowing people are in the audience. I do. It makes me nervous. I don’t even like to know my mom is there. It is so much easier to perform in front of ten thousand strangers than one person I know!

How dos Miss Mona Rank in your list of favorite roles?

Well, I can't tell you that until I’ve played her. (Laughs) But, my favorite roles to date, would be... I have three. And that is Roxie Heart, of course, Nancy in Oliver!, which was always my dream role, and I got to play her in 2009, and Anita in West Side Story was an amazing role to play. I could not dance that right now to save my life. There have been too many injuries, but I really was fortunate enough to play that role, which is another very strong woman’s role. Those are my three top, and who knows by the end of this run, this may be up there too.

How do you prepare for roles? Do you have any unique rituals during rehearsals or on performance days?

No. I do as much research as I possibly can on the character. I try not to watch anybody else’s performances because I don’t want them to color my interpretation. I like to bring my own interpretation to a role without having anybody else’s. I try to be off book before I even step into rehearsals. It doesn't happen very often, but I try really hard. I think every show is unique in the way the rehearsal process goes, and whatever you need, as I said, you asked me how I get through eight shows a week, it’s the same thing, it’s learning what routine you need to do to be your best.

As you have already mentioned, your dream role was Nancy in Oliver!. You recently had the opportunity to portray Nancy in Northport, NY. Do you have a new dream role? If so, what or who is it?

I don’t know if it’s a dream role, but I would really like to audition for Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. I was listening to the music, and it’s so powerful and it would be such a challenge, and it’s so dramatic and colored, and that’s definitely a role I think I’d like to do. At least have the opportunity to try to do. But, I would love to play Nancy again. I’m not done with that role yet. I think I could play her again. Other than that, (Pause) no. Not yet. There’s nothing out there that has taken over the Nancy because I am not done with her yet. (Laughs) I haven't been able to move on.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, presented by Houston's Theatre Under the Stars, runs in The Hobby Center for Performing Arts' Sarofim Hall from June 5, 2012 to June 17, 2012. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.tuts.com/ or call (713) 315 - 2525. 

All photos are courtesy www.michelledejean.com.


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