Understudy role can be murder

Theater: `Chicago' star Belle Calaway learned quickly that she had to make her own breaks. At last, she's getting them.

May 31, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Like Roxie Hart, the character she plays in the musical "Chicago," Belle Calaway knows what it's like to watch somebody else grab the limelight.

For Roxie, who murders her boyfriend in Kander and Ebb's vaudeville-style musical, the competition comes from more notorious, headline-stealing criminals. Calaway's case is more benign.

The 50-year-old actress has spent most of her professional career as an understudy, or, as she puts it, as the "understudy to the stars."

Those stars have included Lauren Bacall (in "Woman of the Year," 1982), Ann Reinking ("Bye Bye Birdie," 1991) and Stefanie Powers ("Applause," 1996).

And though theatrical lore is full of stories of understudies who became overnight sensations, Calaway didn't get a big break until she understudied Charlotte d'Amboise in "Chicago" two years ago. Now she's been playing Roxie for a year on tour, and when she opens at the Mechanic Theatre tomorrow night, she will be fresh from one week's run as Roxie on Broadway.

It's an impressive progression for an actress who originally stepped into Roxie's shoes with only a day's rehearsal, when d'Amboise tore a ligament in her knee just before the tour's Washington engagement. Calaway got reviewed on opening night and continued to play Roxie for two months.

"As an understudy, I've always gone on with maybe one rehearsal," she says. "I think that's why they continue to hire me, because they know I'll bust my butt in case I have to go on."

On Broadway last week, she was filling in for Sandy Duncan, who broke her foot. But while Calaway has benefited from other people's injuries twice in "Chicago," that wasn't the case in her first major understudy job -- understudying Bacall in the tour of "Woman of the Year."

"It was my first big job, and I understudied her, but I was told I would never go on and I never did," she recalls. "I had no costumes, no shoes, no nothing. I didn't want to go on for somebody that famous because the audience is going to be disappointed."

She describes Bacall as "very professional, the first one at the theater, the last one to leave. You have to understand, I was so new to the business, I didn't understand what a star at that level went through, and now I have a mild idea of what that's like.

"It can force you to be very focused on what you're doing and separate you from people, and she was that. I interpreted it as being cold, impersonal, rude, self-involved, but it's not. You're juggling a lot of things. She was very professional, very focused, very prepared all the time.

"I don't see her as cold now, I just see her as busy. Now I know better."

Although Calaway subsequently got the chance to go on for several other stars, she never had the uncomfortable experience of hearing an audience groan, or worse, boo, when the substitution was announced. "I've heard silence," she says. "It's confusing to them."

Born in Germany and raised in Southern California, Calaway knew she wanted to be an actress from the time she was cast in a community theater production of "West Side Story" at age 13. But her career took anything but a straight path.

"I sort of did it backward. Most people run off to New York when they're 20. I ran off when I was 45," she explains. "I did my mistakes first. I got married when I was 19, got divorced four years later and had a small daughter to raise."

She worked in restaurants and factories to support her daughter and didn't get back to theater until she was in her 30s, performing in summer stock and community theater and going to "every audition everywhere."

Even then, she frequently had to find outside work. The summer before her daughter entered college, the two worked side-by-side at a machine that attached labels to bottles at a shampoo plant.

"It was Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley. It was pretty funny," she says.

If anything, Calaway's long wait for stardom has helped her understand the character of Roxie in "Chicago."

"Most people focus on the fact that she's committed murder and wants to get away with it. I don't focus on that because she has higher goals," Calaway explains. "She always wanted to be a star in vaudeville, but she was a chorus girl, and all of a sudden, because of the murder and notoriety and fame she receives in the press, she realizes if she gets off, she will be a star. Roxie doesn't lose sight of her dreams.

"I got to do this role -- my favorite role in the theater -- at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, and I hung onto that dream."

`Chicago'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $31.50-$64

Call: 410-752-1200

Pub Date: 5/31/99

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