Life Should Be Beautiful:  Reflections from a Familiar Face

It is getting incredibly hard to imagine a musical at The Warehouse Theatre without Chelsea Ann Atkins and her smiling face being in the center of it all.  She’s had quite the run over the last few years appearing in Evil Dead : The Musical, Avenue Q, A Little Night Music, and twice in the role of Janet in The Rocky Horror Show.  Now she’s back again, this time in the middle of a musical rebellion and tackling the genre in a whole new way.  We love her here at The Warehouse and wanted you to get the opportunity to hear what she has to say about this latest theatrical endeavor.

WHT:  As a star of multiple Rocky Horrors here, including your latest one just last year, how does your approach change for a show like Urinetown the Musical?
Chelsea:  For Urinetown my first step was to dive into the musical score.  The music is a bit more complex than in Rocky Horror, but this time the harmonies were already written out, unlike Rocky where Janice created a good bit of it herself.  Luckily we have the amazing Janice Wright back working with us on Urinetown so I had her to guide me along the musical journey.  I try to use the music as my guide line and then start building the character based on what the score says to me.  I also studied the various musicals that this show salutes and tried to find ways to incorporate that as I was building Hope’s character.

WHT:  Tell us a bit about the discoveries you’ve made from your initial read of the show to now on the eve of performance previews?
Chelsea:  I’ve discovered the complexities behind my character (Hope) and about the world she lives in.  It is easy to play this role as “dumb,” but that is the easy choice and finding the life behind the obvious choices is what makes her an interesting ingenue.  I’m constantly finding new ways to connect with my fellow actors on stage and will continue to deepen the connections with various characters throughout the run.  At my initial reading, I had the soundtrack stuck in my head and was thinking very “cartoon.”  Now Hope has become something far more interesting and important. I have our wonderful director Nancy Halverson to thank for that.  She has a very specific vision for this show and we sat down and had a long talk about the direction she wanted me to take Hope and I dove right in to try and create that for her.

WHT:  What struck you as most important in the first read (or additional reads) of the script about Hope Cladwell?
Chelsea:  Hope’s belief that everyone has a heart and because of that she presumes she has no reason to be afraid of anyone.  Also her line “life should be beautiful” really stuck with me. She sees the world differently than most, and I knew that contrast was essential to the story and her journey.  She is coming home to a world that is anything but beautiful, but she believes in goodness and love…and “hope.”

WHT:   What’s been the most significant change you’ve made in your portrayal of Hope since rehearsals started?
Chelsea:  Taking her from a very campy, cartoonist character to someone grounded in truth.  As soon as I made that change I felt the connections strengthen with every other character.  She is still very much a musical theatre character.  There is no way you can totally remove that from this show.  It’s written into the music.  But I now channel my energy differently.

WHT:  What’s been your greatest challenge in the role of Hope?
Chelsea:  The music is definitely not easy.  Because the show pulls inspiration from so many other great musicals, you are singing in multiple styles throughout.  It was my greatest challenge, but also one of the most rewarding.  As always, Janice made sure to meet me early or work through breaks on days I needed the extra help.  (If you are reading this Janice, THANK YOU!)  We have worked on five shows together now and I can always count on her!

WHT: What strikes you as the most fun element about the show itself?
Chelsea:  I think the fact that the show has different styles of music and dance!  April did an amazing job at paying tribute to the different musical styles in the dance numbers she choreographed. During rehearsals, one hour there was a group doing hip-hop and the next hour it’s swing and then we are practicing our kick line!  There’s a bit of everything (except for a tap number… next time, April, next time).  Side note: I love to tap dance, but have not had the chance to tap in a show since I was a little kid.

WHT: This won Tony Awards years ago, but talk to us a bit about the relevance of this show in 2016 to an audience in Greenville.
Chelsea: Well our great nation is heading into a big election. I don’t want to get into politics too much (other than encouraging everyone to exercise their right to vote), but there are certain reflections of various political leaders and current candidates in this musical.  Our costumer even used a number of them as her inspiration. But I think it is important to stop and think about what this show is trying to tell us.  Is our way of life unsustainable?  What can we do to fix it and who is the right person to lead us?  Can we go too far when we try to fix the problem?Urinetown asks a lot of tough questions and presents a dark side of politics and big business, but wraps it up with shiny, happy music and dance.

WHT:  What’s it like to work with such an expansive space like the one Shannon Robert has designed for you and the cast?
Chelsea:  If Shannon Robert designed it then you know it is going to be an amazing playground to act on, and Shannon took this set to a whole new level.  We are using the ENTIRE THEATRE. From the floor to to the lights, through the audience, above the audience…we are acting everywhere!  Naturally we all have to adjust some acting techniques based on the space but it was a challenge everyone happily accepted!  As an actor, the more obstacles in a space, the better, and this set has something for us in every nook and cranny.  We had a great discussion with Nancy about how to incorporate the world that Shannon created into our character development.

WHT:  Piece of advice for an audience member coming to see Urinetown the Musical?
Chelsea:  Of course we want you to sit back and enjoy, but don’t fight the urge to really think about what this show is trying to say.  Also, as actors, we thrive off of responsive audiences, so don’t be afraid to laugh, cry, shout, and clap!

WHT: What’s next for you this season? You have another gig coming up?
Chelsea:  Next I I will be taking a few months to focus on an amazing new career with The Haro Group of Keller Williams Realty here in Greenville!  I started my job there on the same week that we started Urinetown rehearsals, so to say that this past month has been insane is an understatement!  As far as shows go, I don’t have anything else planned yet for the season, but there are a few things on my radar I am hoping to get the chance to perform in!

WHT:  Any question you want to answer that you didn’t get asked?
Chelsea:  No questions in particular, but just want to say how amazing this creative team has been – Nancy, Janice, April, all of the designers,  the crew, and of course the cast.  I have been surrounded by some amazing people during this journey and I can’t wait to perform this show with them.  Every time I am in a show the cast becomes my family, but there is something different, and very extra special about this group.

Catch Chelsea as Hope Cladwell in Urinetown the Musical when it opens September 16th. Premium cabaret seats are available throughout the four week run, allowing you the most engrossing seats imaginable for this unforgettable evening of theatre!