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All that jazz 

Touring Chicago star helps teens reach potential

click to enlarge Brenda Braxton (center), as Velma Kelly, performs the - showstopper All That Jazz. - PAUL KOLNIK
  • Paul Kolnik
  • Brenda Braxton (center), as Velma Kelly, performs the showstopper All That Jazz.

For the sake of the three or four people who somehow missed last decade's multi-Tony Award-winning revival of Bob Fosse's 1975 musical and the multi-Academy Award-winning movie version, featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, here's the quick breakdown:

Chicago follows the story of young wannabe star Roxie Hart as she tries to break into the glamorous 1920s world of showbiz cabaret. Along the way, she endures murder, prison, lies, slander, lots and lots of fabulous singing and dancing, and delicious diva Miss Velma Kelly.

The touring Broadway production that's in the Springs this weekend stars Brenda Braxton as Velma. Braxton, who's toured on and off for the past two-and-a-half years, has a respected reputation for her community service work with teenagers in her native New York City.

"In 1996, I was doing Smokey Joe's Caf on Broadway, when I started the program called Leading Ladies Just for Teens. It consisted of Sunday seminars where we would invite some young women to come backstage, see me put on my makeup, see the show and get autographs."

Braxton grew up in a rough neighborhood, and largely credits her good fortune to her performing arts background.

"I came up with the idea because I grew up in the Bronx and went to Catholic school for eight years. I had always loved to dance. I was a dancer. And when it came time for me to go to high school, one of my teachers approached me and told me about the opportunity to go to [High School for the Performing Arts]. He saw my potential and encouraged it," she says.

"So the Leading Ladies concept is to take other young women and give them the chance to see me -- you know, I did it, so maybe they can, too -- and teach them the importance of setting goals and having dreams. And I really don't know what would have happened to me if that one person hadn't believed in me."

The project has been a success, serving more than 1,000 young women.

"I was getting a community service award from Governor Pataki a few years ago," Braxton continues, "and my mother contacted my old teacher to see if he wanted to be part of the ceremony, but he didn't want to be in the spotlight at all. He just told my mother to tell me hello, and that was it." These days, Braxton travels the world with Chicago. The show is very demanding, but Braxton says she remains engaged.

"With live theater, it's always interesting. It's never the same on any night. You never feel the same way as a person; sometimes you'll focus on the sad parts, or sometimes the scary parts. And you never know how an audience will react. There's always a different flavor.

"We just got back from Japan, which was amazing and so interesting. The audiences seemed to really enjoy the show at the end, but they were quiet all through it; they didn't really laugh at the jokes or anything. So we were thrilled to get back to the States. We felt like, 'Oh my gosh! We're still funny!'"

-- Bettina Swigger

capsule

Chicago: Live!

Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.

Tuesday, Oct. 4, and Wednesday, Oct. 5, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $42-$62; call 520-SHOW or visit ticketswest.com.

  • Touring Chicago star helps teens reach potential

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