The Broadway actress has starred as Velma Kelly in more than 2,700 shows and no, it doesn’t get old
Pop, six, squish, uh-uh, Cicero, Lipschitz!
For 22 years, “Cell Block Tango” has been made even more seductive and gratifying since Amra-Faye Wright seamlessly slid into the role of the triple threat, high kicking murderess, Velma Kelly, in the hit show CHICAGO The Musical. In a time when the media was obsessed with women committing homicide, CHICAGO sets its scene. It’s the mid-1920s in Chicago, and vaudevillian Velma Kelly is arrested for the murder of her husband and sister after she found them in bed together. Meanwhile, chorus girl Roxie Hart details the murder of her lover, nightclub regular Fred Casely. A battle for fame ensues as to who will become the leading lady of the papers.
Growing up in South Africa so far removed from theater, a career on Broadway was a dream Wright didn’t even know she had.
“I grew up in a small town in East London. There wasn’t a lot of theater going on there, but I was fortunate to have a wonderful ballet teacher,” said Wright, who studied classical ballet as a child and dreamed of being a ballerina. “Every now and then a traveling company came through, but I had no real access to theater at all. The first musical I saw was Hello, Dolly! at the movies.”
For Wright, who grew up with two older brothers, going into theater was not a part of the plan. She studied art and became an exchange student at the age of 17, coming to Kansas City, MO. When she returned home to South Africa, she married a farmer and worked on the farm for six years. Always a performer at heart and training exclusively in classical and jazz, Wright landed her first professional job in South Africa as a dancer until retiring at 27. Although she didn’t sing or act too much at that point, Wright auditioned in Monte Carlo, where she got the role as lead artist in the world famous Cabaret du Casino for two years.
“I trained as a singer and eventually I did a few musicals in Johannesburg until I transferred to England where I auditioned for CHICAGO,” said Wright of the role that would make her career. “I got the role of Velma Kelly in the London production.”
Having traveled all over the world as a dancer and singer has put Wright in good stead for her current role. The South African beauty holds the honor of being the longest running Velma Kelly in CHICAGO history, performing on Broadway in more than 2,700 shows. To her, it never gets old.
“There have been ups and downs and times over the years where I felt like I should have maybe moved on and done something else, but now I feel that my age and experience in this role has come together where I’m just feeling super comfortable and I like that right now,” said Wright. “I’m so fortunate to have had a career out of CHICAGO.”
Wright does have the opportunity to explore other ventures. While performing in CHICAGO, she has performed all over the world as her character. In 2010, Wright performed in Japanese and actually spoke Japanese.
“I wanted to try something new. They had a Japanese cast and figured it would be fun to have a Broadway person come out and play the role in Japanese. They pitched the idea to our producers and they agreed,” said Wright of the experience. “I learned the show in Japanese phonetically and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was very intense training and there’s no room for error so I was terrified. Now, they request me every time the show goes there.”
This year, Wright is doing guest performances in South Africa, a concept that isn’t new as she filled in last year for New Zealand’s Velma Kelly after their actress took ill. And while there is a lot to love about all of the ladies on the cell block in the Cook County Jail, Wright particularly loves her character’s boldness.
“I love Velma’s sense that she knows she’s in charge of the cell block when the show starts. Then, we see the degradation of her position by Roxie, and I like that she has to claw her way to get herself back in place,” said Wright. “I like that there’s an obvious insecurity in her character and she covers it with bravado.”
When the stage lights illuminated the first performance of CHICAGO in 1975, the musical was about strong, independent women who were empowered by their refusal in letting a man take advantage of or making a fool of them, in any capacity. The show hasn’t changed, but Wright believes the way women perceive the show has.
“CHICAGO is and was very much ahead of its time. I think women see it and feel more encouraged by it because they maybe see themselves in it. There is more of a connected understanding that it’s a show about women, and I think that’s why it stood the test of time,” she said. “CHICAGO is a story that regenerated itself with the #MeToo movement and women are really taking charge.”
CHICAGO has all the elements of an entertaining evening: a timeless story, show-stopping numbers, no set to distract the audience (the band is right onstage) and massive quantities of pure talent. Wright believes that CHICAGO is still drawing attention to women in all the right ways.
“It’s a very intelligent show. CHICAGO touches on all of those aspects of life around us in a satirical and tongue-in-cheek way that’s entertaining and eye-opening,” she said. “All that with Fosse’s choreography just makes for a really sexy show.”
CHICAGO The Musical is currently playing at The Ambassador Theatre, located at 219 West 49th Street. For tickets, visit www.chicagothemusical.com.