BWW Feature: Broadway Actress Comes Home to Madison in ANASTASIA
ANASTASIA rolls into town this week with Tari Kelly, an East High School alum, who began her career here in Madison on the well-worn stages of community theatre. I'm always excited to hear success stories of locals making it on Broadway, but this one, I've known about for a while.
When I saw Kelly's name pop up on the ANASTASIA cast list, I was thrilled, because I have inadvertently been following her career since one of her earliest musical theatre productions, ANNIE, put on by Sun Prairie Civic Theatre back in the 1980's. I am not a personal friend of Kelly, or her family. In fact, until this interview, we had never even spoken. Nonetheless, as I watched her chase the impossible dream-- from small town Wisconsin stages, to regional theatre, and on to the bright lights of Broadway, I've been quietly cheering her on.
The second time I spotted Kelly on stage was in the Madison Area Technical College's production of A CHORUS LINE where she played the lead role of Cassie. "I laugh at that memory because I was nineteen, one of the youngest people in the cast, and I was playing the oldest woman in the cast." As a musical theatre lover, I still remember her solo number "The Music and the Mirror" with her spins and leaps. I was so happy for the little girl from ANNIE. Tari Kelly was chasing the dream.
Kelly grew up a shy girl from Madison's east side who took dance classes. Her mother saw that Madison Theatre Guild was putting on ANYTHING GOES and was looking for dancers. "I loved the show and all the crazy theatre people," Kelly says, recalling her earliest theatre experience. "I slowly started coming out of my shell, and then Annie happened." She continued performing and in high school realized she might want to perform as a living. "I went to theatre school for a hot second," Kelly says of her year at DePaul University's acting conservancy. She missed the elements of song and dance, so after a year she transferred to the University of Wisconsin, Steven's Point's musical theatre program, but that didn't last long either.
"I started working at the Fireside during the summer performing in MAME. Then they offered me the lead in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, so I had to decide whether to go back to college or take this job." It was during her time at the Fireside that I recognized Kelly as the lead in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, which she admits was a dream role. As I watched her bring down the house, I thought, 'She's doing it. She's making it happen.'
Kelly's success and experience at The Fireside Theatre lead to calls from other regional theatres. Those connections lead her to an introduction and being cast in the Broadway production of SHOWBOAT. "You never know where you're going to get an opportunity that will change your life." She wasn't even a member of the union at the time and had never been to New York. Her first show was directed by the famed Hal Prince and choreographer Susan Stroman. That was 1994 and Kelly hasn't stopped since.
Fast forward to recent years and Kelly's career continues to shine. While sitting in the balcony of the St. James Theatre, about to see the Broadway production of SOMETHING ROTTEN! I spotted Kelly's name in the program. Of her experience in the hilarious show, Kelly says, "I loved that cast, and it was such a great time." However, she was a little daunted by the fact that she was replacing an actor in the show and had to quickly catch up. To that point in her career, she'd always been in the original cast of a production, but the cast was welcoming, making the transition easier.
It was only a year or so later that I was sitting front row center of GROUND HOG DAY (Thank you TKTS booth!). I quickly recognized Kelly and wondered if I'd ever have the chance to meet her. GROUND HOG DAY was a non-stop uproarious frenzy, which Kelly explained was a real challenge for the cast. "That show is so special to me. It was also the hardest show I'd ever done in my life, let me tell you!" Kelly explained that the show was so much harder than it looked, with constant running around, navigating the turntable stage, trying to remember what the counts were for that version of the day. Every move was specifically timed and intricate. "It was crazy!"
Sadly, despite several Tony nominations-no wins as it was a spectacular year for DEAR EVAN HANSEN-the show closed after six months. This lead to Kelly's current role in the original touring cast of ANASTASIA, and a chance for me to finally chat with her.
Kelly has performed in a half dozen Broadway shows, several national tours, and countless regional productions. She can be heard on several cast recordings and has appeared on the Tony's as well as other network television. It's fair to say she is a career actress with few gaps in her busy schedule. "I still can't believe the trajectory of my career. Honestly, I've been really lucky in how things lined up. I feel a little spoiled, but I've also paid my dues spending time in the ensemble."
In ANASTASIA, Kelly plays the role of Countess Lily, lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress. Countess Lily is the soubrette, the lively flirt, and comedy relief of the heartfelt story. Countess Lily and Vlad sing "The Countess and the Common Man." "It's two older people trying to rekindle their romance, but they are maybe not as in shape as they used to be," she laughs. "We're there for the entertainment of the adults."
Before I let Kelly go, I couldn't resist asking about her Instagram posts featuring wall art. Apparently many theatres around the country offer touring shows a spot on the wall to paint their logo and then sign their autograph in tribute to their production. "It's a fun activity to look at the history of theatre and all the shows that have come through." Kelly occasionally revisits a theatre where she signed years ago or spots the signatures of dear friends she's made throughout her career. However, not all theatres provide space for wall art, including Broadway theatres. Kelly says that doesn't stop the cast. "Sometimes when we don't have wall art, we'll sign under our makeup stations or inside the drawer."
Kelly doesn't get back to Madison often. She's played Milwaukee and Appleton, but never had the opportunity to play her hometown, so it really does feel like old home week for her.
Kelly says, "I'm excited for the cast to see Madison and even more excited for Madison to see the show!"
For all those kids hoofing on the same stages Tari Kelly did-CTM, Madison Theatre Guild, Sun Prairie Civic Theatre, Oregon Straw Hat Players, Wisconsin Dance Ensemble's Nutcracker, and many more-don't give up. Chase your dreams!
ANASTASIA is the final show in the 2018/19 Broadway at Overture series, presented by Broadway Across America and Lexus of Madison. Tickets, starting at $35, are on sale now at www.Overture.org, in person at the Overture Center ticket office (201 State St.) or by phone at 608.258.4141.