Local woman to star in Show Boat
By Patty Unruh
Soprano Ellen Kaye will make her Central City Opera debut August 6 in Show Boat, the 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. The Opera Company has been rehearsing at the Central City Opera House during July, with seven performances at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex from August 6 through 11.
I visited with Ellen on Saturday, July 27 at the Mountain Mocha Cafe in Black Hawk as she took a break from rehearsals. Ellen shared her background and musical experiences with me over coffee and a sandwich. Already a seasoned performer at age 28, she was warm, friendly, and articulate.
Ellen grew up in Boulder, attending Fairview High School. Her parents are John and Sherri (formerly Havelka) Thomas, who moved to Gilpin County ten years ago. Many of the local folks will recall that Ellen has sung at the Christmas Eve service at St. James United Methodist Church for the past several years. Ellen now lives in Denver.
She began her performing career when she was six, not with singing, but with dancing. Her older sister did Irish step dancing, and Ellen literally followed in her footsteps. One Irish dance competition called for her to sing, as well as dance, and that helped lead her to musical theater, which she performed in junior high and high school.
At Fairview, Ellen performed in the musicals Hair, Hello Dolly, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She went on to major in theater and dance at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, also taking one semester of theater and dance in New York and a semester of physical comedy, mask work, and clowning in Italy.
“I met lots of great teachers and performers and went back to Europe on my own later, studying at several different schools for eight months,” she said.
Ellen, who described herself as a musical theater singer rather than an opera singer, recalled that she was always around music. Her mother played the piano and grew up going to the Central City Opera. Ellen’s family sang, and she had aunts and uncles who were singers. “I was the only one to pursue it, though,” she admitted. She likes all types of music, but her favorite to sing is musical theater.
She won the part of Ellie Mae Chipley in Show Boat when CCO held limited auditions in Denver in March. They didn’t have an “Ellie” in their bank of performers, and Ellen learned that if they didn’t find one in Denver, they would search in New York. She jumped at the opportunity to audition.
“Dancing was a plus,” she related, “because not many opera singers also dance.” Rehearsals began July 9. This is the only production for which she is contracted, but she hopes it will lead to more, as performances are only at the Buell Theatre, and she would like to perform at the Central City Opera House someday.
The Opera’s website summarizes the musical’s plot. “The musical tells the story of the workers on a Mississippi show boat over the course of 50 years, from 1880 to 1927. The musical was innovative for its time, combining the lightness and spectacle of musical theater with the serious themes of racial prejudice and tragic love.”
Ellen described the character she plays in the musical. “Ellie Mae Chipley is a comedian, doing vaudeville, comedy, dance, and slapstick, but she wants to be a leading lady ingénue. I have a couple of scenes with songs and dances, and Ellie Mae is in every important scene, watching.”
Ellen noted that the characters on the river boat are like those in a dysfunctional family – “but it’s still family,” she said. “Ellie is passionate about the sad parts [when some of the characters leave], but then she is vying for their part. She is self-centered, but not mean.”
Another main character in the Show Boat family is Cap’n Andy, who says, “The lucky ones are the ones who get to spend their life doing what they love.” Ellen said that all the characters are pursuing a dream, which is unusual for a story set in the 1800’s.
“It had revolutionary themes when it was written,” she said, “with a racially mixed cast. It was a brave show.” She appreciates director Ray Roderick’s choice to simply present a snapshot of history and allow the members of the audience to make up their own minds about the racial matters.
As for the rehearsals, Ellen said, it’s an incredible feat of organization. The principle actors appear just for this show, while the ensemble of studio artists and apprentices are doing multiple shows this summer. She notes that there is a large ensemble of African-Americans, which can be challenging to assemble in this part of the country. The chorus is from Denver, with its members having a wide variety of performing backgrounds.
“We are doing a play with music. That is the opposite of an opera, where the music itself tells the story,” Ellen said. She sings a Broadway style of music for the show, and noted, “It’s a wonderful blend of opera singers and musical theater performers.”
In high school, Ellen played beautiful and sweet leading ladies. She grinned ruefully as she related, “Then I got older, and other girls got taller and developed fuller figures, and I realized that I was not ‘that girl.’ I’m more of a comic, a sidekick.” She said she had found her identity in playing either the comic or the strong character, such as Eva Peron in Evita, for which The Denver Post nominated her as Best Actress in a musical in 2011.
“That was a dream role,” Ellen recalled. “It was special to embody a historic person. She had global impact,” referring to Peron’s fight for women’s suffrage and for improving the lives of the poor. It was two years ago that Ellen performed the role as the actress who became the second wife of Argentine president Juan Peron in 1945. Ellen noted that she was at the same age as Eva Peron had been when the political figure died of an illness.
Ellen was also nominated in 2012 as Best Actress by the Post for her role as Kate Monster in Avenue Q, which Ellen described as “a combination of Sesame Street and ‘the Muppets graduate from college and start real life.’” The cast members each operate puppets and are also present, unconcealed, onstage. Ellen operated Kate Monster, “the girl next door,” and also “Lucy,” who is Kate’s opposite.
When she is not singing, Ellen teaches yoga and is the general manager of Kindness Yoga studios, with four locations. She said doing yoga, with its emphasis on repetition and staying focused, helps her be calm during theater performances, and the exercises help her maintain flexibility for dancing.
Favorite activities are to be with her family and to go hiking. She could have chosen to work in New York, where she realized she might have more “glory,” but said she decided to remain in Colorado because she likes the lifestyle here. Many artists from New York come here to perform, she noted, so she is working with the same people here as she would in New York.
Ellen has also recently performed with the Ensemble in Romeo and Juliet with the Denver Center Theater Company, as Kate Monster/Lucy in Avenue Q, The Musical with the Boulder Dinner Theater, and with the Ensemble in Chess, The Musical with the Arvada Center.