For most actors who perform on stage in London and on Broadway, passing by Horsebarn Hill and the cow pastures on the way to the Connecticut Repertory Theatre might be a bit of a culture shock. But for Olivier Award winner Laura Michelle Kelly, who stars as Sally Bowles in the 2019 Nutmeg Summer production of “Cabaret,” it feels more like home.
“I feel very at home with the cows,” says Kelly, who grew up on a dairy farm on the Isle of Wight, just off the southern coast of England. “It’s a pleasure to be in that neighborhood, get in touch with real nature, and then come and entertain people.”
Kelly’s credits include originating the Broadway role of Silvia in “Finding Neverland,” reprising her original West End (London) title role in “Mary Poppins” in New York and in the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” She also starred in productions of “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” and “My Fair Lady.” In 2007, she made her film debut as Lucy Barker in “Sweeney Todd,” directed by Tim Burton.
The actress leads the cast of “Cabaret,” the Tony Award-winning musical centering around a German nightclub against the backdrop of the Nazis’ rise to power, that includes Tony Award nominee and UConn alum Forrest McClendon as the Emcee (“The Scottsboro Boys”), three-time Tony nominee Dee Hoty (“The Will Rogers Follies” and “Footloose”), and Jonathan Brody (“Spamalot” and “A Bronx Tale”). The production runs from July 4 through 21 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre.
Kelly says while she enjoys the process of helping to create a new character by originating a role in a new production, she also looks forward to the change of pace with an established character in a revival.
“Sometimes you need the break of knowing this is a really great piece,” she says. “All you need to think about are the boundaries that you have within the lines, given that they are not going anywhere. That’s why after ‘Finding Neverland’, I went to ‘The King and I.’ Anna to the King was an incredible role. Those lines were enough, so filled with meaty things, and you could do it differently every night within the boundaries of it’s never going to change.”
One thing Kelly says she does not do when taking on an established character role is watch previous performances, such as Sally Bowles as portrayed in 1968 by Dame Judi Dench on stage in the West End of London, or the 1972 film “Cabaret,” with Liza Minelli in the star role.
“When I got Mary Poppins, I didn’t want to watch any video of it, even though I remember it vaguely from my past,” she says. “You can’t help but be influenced by someone else’s performance, especially Julie Andrews. I watched her doing ‘Sound of Music’ growing up. I read the [P.L. Travers] books and tried to bring my own flavor to it, because you can’t help but pick up qualities that you love from what someone else did. I just wanted to be the best new version of myself doing it.”
Being the best version of one’s self by taking on new challenges is the advice Kelly says she offers young actors, such as the UConn students who are part of the “Cabaret” ensemble, offering insights into a profession where she has found success for more than two decades.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to encourage them in any way,” Kelly says. “I now look forward as I’m getting older to pass along anything that I can. We’re in a career where so many people are having that feeling of never being good enough, and rejection. I would love to be one of the people that would show them they’re significant, accepted, and talented.”
Kelly is also trying to follow her own advice as a solo performer when she has the time. She recorded two albums of songs several years ago, and has performed Broadway and pop hits during her time in New York City, including a showcase at Feinstein’s/54 Below nightclub near Times Square. She says she is getting more comfortable on stage in those settings.
“I like a balanced life of getting to sing and talk about real life,” she says. “In my 20s, it was really stressful. I wasn’t really comfortable in my own skin back then. I hadn’t learned what it was to be at peace on stage. I’ve been doing more of that and I’m really enjoying it. I’d really like to do an American tour.”
Evening performances of “Cabaret” start at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Matinee performances start at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The performance on Saturday, July 13 at 2 p.m. will be ASL interpreted. For more information go to crt.uconn.edu.