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On The Road to Oz With MEGAN MURPHY CHAMBERS

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To know Megan Murphy Chambers is to love her: Make no mistake about it, she's as beloved among Nashville's theater community as anyone you could possibly imagine. Her stage appearances are noteworthy and memorable, to be certain, but it's her offstage personality that proves how much everyone loves her. She's thoughtful and kind, funny and charming, sweet and entertaining.

In short, Megan Murphy Chambers may well be the ideal actress - maybe even the only one, come to think of it - to play Glinda, the stunningly gorgeous and relentlessly gleeful Good Witch of the South, in Studio Tenn's eagerly anticipated production of The Wizard of Oz, which takes the stage at Schermerhorn Symphony Center in downtown Nashville this weekend. And so she will, a vision in pink tulle, festooned with enough beads and sequins and assorted frou-frou to put all thoughts of Billie Burke (who played Glinda in the iconic 1939 film) away in some scrapbook of childhood memories.

While playing Glinda fulfills any girl's (and perhaps even some boys') dream of playing dress-up and taking part in a musical that is so firmly rooted in American pop culture that we all know the lines, then it's just a part of the job for Chambers who, later this year, will take on the role of another theatrical heroine who also lives on in childhood reminiscence when she becomes Mary Poppins for Act Too Pro at the historic Franklin Theatre.

Without doubt, 2015 is a big year theatrically for Chambers who started off the new year in Nashville Shakespeare Festival's acclaimed Twelfth Night and followed that up with Geoff Davin's challengingly titled The First Church of Mary, The Repentant Prostitute's Fifth Annual Benefit Concert, Revival and Pot Luck Dinner, in which she played the aide-to-camp to an evangelical preacher (played by Davin himself) in a freewheeling show that drew packed houses during its world premiere stand in East Nashville.

Now, as she approaches opening night in The Wizard of Oz, she's poised to show her tremendous talents and remarkable range to even more theater-goers who follow Studio Tenn productions with tremendous loyalty (and ticket-buying largesse).

Chambers took a break from her rather riotous schedule - going from Wizard photo shoots to First Church of Mary rehearsals - to talk about her career and to explain why-in-the-hell an actress of her capabilities has chosen to claim Nashville as her home for the past 13 years.

"If we're being totally honest," she begins, "we had the photo shoot a couple of weeks ago and I got so excited - and then I left there and went to rehearsal for Geoff's show and I was just kind of overwhelmed. I can't wait to play Glinda, of course, but it's been a busy time of year with all these shows and it's been callback season in Nashville, as well. We'll probably start rehearsals for Mary Poppins in early July. Well, I'm delighted and thrilled. This craziness is a good problem to have."

As she prepared to take on the role of Glinda, she suggested that her task is, at its most basic, rather straightforward: "I feel like my job will be to try to pay homage to that vision we all have of Glinda without attempting to duplicate it. It's so much more fun to approach it from a fresh place, but you also have to think 'why mess with perfection?'...I will try to pull in some inspiration from the film depiction of Glinda. Well, I'm going to try to find a balance, something new and original but with a flavor of the Glinda we all know and love."

The Wizard of Oz is Chambers' second role with Studio Tenn; in 2014, she joined the company for Les Miserables, their last musical at the Schermerhorn backed by the musicians of the Grammy Award-winning Nashville Symphony.

"I love working with Studio Tenn, their commitment to quality is just incredible and their insistence on getting the aesthetic right, getting the material right is awe-inspiring. They really value their audiences in a way that I just love," she says. "They give audiences a lot of credit, they don't patronize anyone and they refuse to dumb anything down. They are always challenging audiences, designers and actors. I love that."

For Chambers, who "grew up all over the place," ("I was born in Kansas City," she explains, but her family moved every few years) but she went to high school in Brentwood, the choice to return to Nashville to make her home after college (she's a graduate of the University of Missouri, where she didn't major in theater nor did she take any theater coursework) was easy. "I went to high school here and I always loved Nashville," she says.

"I love this town and I love the boom that I feel the arts is experiencing here," she muses. "I don't know if it's due to the number of people who are living here now or the type of people attracted to Nashville, but there is an energy and a push behind the arts now that is invigorating and exciting. The energy is pushing these theater companies I love to do better, more challenging work. Everyone is motivated by that energy and you can't help but be caught up in it."

As we talked about her career and how busy 2015 has proven to be, she breathlessly described the process of bringing Wizard of Oz to life (Laura Matula, one of her closest friends and co-member of Mas Nashville, the production company cum cabaret act cum creative collective that also includes Cori Laemmel, Melodie Madden Adams and founder Erin Parker, plays The Wicked Witch of the West): "Rehearsals are happening now for the big dance numbers and I am clapping my hands and jumping up and down and laughing in anticipation...I just can't wait to see all the munchkin craziness," she reports.

But what most excites her about playing Glinda in The Wizard of Oz is more personal and indicative of who Megan Murphy Chambers really is and what keeps her grounded despite all the critical accolades and audience acclaim: "What I'm most excited about is my uncle John, a successful businessman and farmer in Missouri, told me The Wizard of Oz is his favorite movie of all time and so he and my Aunt Rita are taking a weekend off during the busiest time of their season to come to Nashville and see the show. It makes me so happy."

Make no bones about it, as a theater critic and as an average citizen, I am a huge fan of Megan Murphy Chambers. As proof, I offer these pull quotes from the dozens of reviews I've written of her onstage performances over the years, using all the superlatives I could come up with and sending me to the thesaurus to find new ones for her upcoming shows:

  • Macabaret at Street Theatre Company: But for my money, it's Chambers' show. She gives such a vividly off-the-wall performance that you can't take your eyes off of her; her big Act Two number, in which she sings of being "Possessed" is a comic tour de force and the versatile Chambers chews up every last piece of scenery with a self-assured charm that is dazzling.
  • I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change at Street Theatre Company: Clearly, Chambers can do no wrong and is completely unafraid of showing us everything that's in her; her performances are consistently engaging because of her total lack of guile and her innate grace, her tremendous acting and singing talents notwithstanding. She is at her best in this revue when she is paired with Laemmel on "A Stud and A Babe," which comes early in act one, and in the second stanza's "I Can Live With That."
  • Mas Nashville's FIVE: Although each woman performed with an easy grace, displaying ample wit and charm, Chambers proved the most self-assured comedienne among the five, eliciting the most raucous laughter from the audience. Truly, she's missing her calling: Get the woman a regular cabaret gig and watch audiences line up for tickets.
  • The Fall from Earth from Groundworks Theatre: Chambers - clearly one of the most capable actresses you can ever hope to see - gives a performance that rivets your attention, one that is totally free of stagey artifice yet is compellingly theatrical.
  • Company from Circle Players: And if anyone could possibly steal the show out from under any of these seasoned stage veterans, leave it to the inimitable Megan Murphy Chambers, the most confident and self-possessed comic actress on a Nashville stage, to do it with her portrayal of Amy. With a performance of "Getting Married Today" that makes it seem as if Sondheim wrote the song expressly for her talents, Chambers knocks it out of the ball park.
  • Next to Normal at Boiler Room Theatre: Megan Murphy Chambers' searing, shattering portrayal of Diana Goodman in Boiler Room Theatre's stellar production of next to normal may well prove to be the season's most memorable performance by an actress in a musical, but director Jamey Green has surrounded her with an exceptional cast of actors who match her blow-for-blow with their own stunning performances...Chambers' casting was indeed perfect. And she delivers exactly what we all hoped for, showing off the versatility, the confidence and the presence that has long identified her as one of the very best to be found onstage.
  • Parade at Boiler Room Theatre: Chambers is, without any sense of exaggeration, one of the finest musical theater actresses to be found on any stage. Among Nashville actresses she's had an amazing 2012 season, playing Diana in next to normal to universal acclaim and audience ardor and now adding the role of Lucille Frank to her own personal pantheon of theatrical achievement. It seems that in every role she assays, Chambers allows audiences to see a new and unique part of her personality, completely cloaking herself in the raiments of her character while providing every script-bound role with much-needed heart and humanity. The result? You leave the theater awestruck by what you've just witnessed.
  • Twelfth Night from Nashville Shakespeare Festival: Chambers, still dealing with a broken appendage, works wonders onstage while making her way with the aid of crutches that somehow never become, well, crutches.
  • The First Church of Mary, The Repentant Prostitute's Fifth Annual Benefit Concert, Revival and Pot Luck Dinner: Chambers, cast as Charlotte aka Charley (Adamenses' put-upon and long-sufferning aide-de-camp), gives a startling performance that allows her to evolve from meek helpmate to a Frankenstein's monster of sorts, without a hint of falseness. Watch her during her quieter moments for a master class in acting, her incredulous looks and heartfelt expressions underscoring her character's arc.
Diana DeGarmo as Dorothy Gale in Studio Tenn's
The Wizard of Oz - photos by Anthony Matula

About The Wizard of Oz: Equipped with plenty of heart, wit and courage, Studio Tenn Theatre Company will travel to Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center and transform it into an opulent Emerald City for its season finale production of The Wizard of Oz, live on stage June 13-14.

Sure to enchant audiences of all ages, this lavishly staged and costumed production backed by a full symphony orchestra will take place Saturday, June 13 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, June 14 at 2 p.m., plus a newly added performance at 7 p.m. For tickets, visit StudioTenn.com or call the Schermerhorn Box Office at (615) 687-6400.

For the starring role of Dorothy, Studio Tenn has tapped Broadway's Diana DeGarmo, who rose to fame as the runner-up on American Idol in 2004. Since that debut, she has starred in Hairspray and Hair on Broadway. Recently, she co-starred in a national touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat alongside her husband and fellow American Idol veteran, Ace Young.

"I'm so excited to be working with Studio Tenn in what is shaping up to be a truly magnificent theatre experience," said DeGarmo. "It is a thrill to take on the iconic role of Dorothy in such an imaginative, innovative production in my own hometown."

The rest of the cast comprises an abundance of Nashville talent, including Studio Tenn veterans Graham Keen as the Scarecrow, Patrick Waller as the Cowardly Lion, Greg Maheu as the Tin Man, Laura Matula as the Wicked Witch of the West, Megan Murphy Chambers as Glinda the Good Witch, and Matthew Carlton as The Wizard/Professor Marvel, as well as 42 local munchkins, cast through a collaboration with The Theater Bug.

Studio Tenn's Artistic Director Matt Logan said, "The Wizard of Oz is, in a word, magical."

While the iconic film's influence will certainly be felt, Logan assures that Studio Tenn's Wizard will be far from a mere rerun. "We want to pay homage to where this classic story has been and what it has looked like in the past, but at the same time, we feel the best, most genuine way to honor its spirit of imagination is to unleash our own," Logan said.

As a rule, the company's innovative interpretations of classic theatre titles are anything but cookie-cutter. "At Studio Tenn, we don't make copies, and we don't serve up leftovers," Logan said. "We believe that our audience deserves more, and that the pieces we take on deserve a fresh perspective. We start with the source material, and we invite other adaptations and derivations to inspire our work, but never to dictate it."

Managing Director Jake Speck explains that this approach is central to Studio Tenn's mission to use a rich combination of talent from Nashville and Broadway to bring classic works of drama and musical theatre to life in Middle Tennessee. "It is a dream come true for us to create live theatre of this caliber and this scale right here in our own backyard," said Speck. "There truly is no place like home."


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