Killer Performer

'Chicago' star Brenda Braxton doesn't let all that touring jazz bring her down

Starring in a musical on Broadway, then taking it on a grueling national tour, you can start to feel like Velma Kelly in Chicago: an entertainer who has been sentenced to prison.

Of course, Velma ends up in prison because she's killed her lover, only to be upstaged as a media darling by a nobody who's done pretty much the same thing. Merely playing Velma doesn't require you to kill, except in the metaphorical showbiz sense. But oh, doing hard time on tour.

"It's so much harder than on Broadway," says Brenda Braxton, who plays Velma in the version of Chicago being brought to town next week by Broadway in Tucson. "It's not just the fact that you miss your home and your husband and your dog; I brought my dog with me this time. It's eight shows a week, Tuesday through Sunday, with travel on your one day off. Then there's the difficulty of being in a different hotel every week, trying to find food that's not going to make you sick or not going to make you fat or not going to be too expensive. You're just uprooted."

So, given all that, why has Braxton played Velma for nearly two years now? Besides for the paycheck, that is?

"Velma is kind of Brenda," she says. "She's funny; she's sneaky; she's happy. It's very, very rare that you get to play a character that runs the gamut of so many emotions in one night. And I've had good co-workers. We play off each other well. It's nice to have co-stars you can try something new with, instead of being stuck in what you're doing. It keeps it fresh and alive.

"And, yeah, there's the paycheck, too."

Braxton adds that she has no problem knowing that many people who come see her in Chicago are going to have Catherine Zeta-Jones in mind from the show's film version. "I'm not competing with her at all," she declares. "Live theater is so much different from film, anyway. And because of the fact that I'm an African-American woman, I bring a whole other thing to it that Catherine Zeta couldn't bring. And I know my craft, and I've been around a long, long time. I don't think about it at all."

One thing that Braxton does regret about touring is that it leaves her no time to operate Leading Ladies Just for Teens, which she founded when she was earning a Tony nomination in Smokey Joe's Café on Broadway. "I would hold these seminars for teenage girls for self-esteem and self-empowerment," she says. "They'd come to the theater on Sunday morning, and we'd sit in the lobby and talk about how they could set goals, how important it is to have a dream. Then I'd take them on a tour of backstage, have them meet the cast, and they'd see the show and get autographs. I did that the whole five years we were on Broadway.

"I went to Catholic school for eight years, and when it was time to go to high school, one teacher told me about the High School for Performing Arts, because he knew I'd danced since I was 4. If it hadn't been for that one teacher, there's no telling where this Bronx girl would've ended up. I decided that if I could be that one person for another girl, I'd do that. My life hasn't been just a wonderful thing from the beginning, but now I'm on Broadway and touring. It's important for girls to know you can come from meager beginnings, and with a dream and perseverance you can do something like that."

Braxton intends to revive Leading Ladies Just for Teens when she returns to the Broadway cast of Chicago in March. "I go back and forth from tour to Broadway," she says. "Chicago has become my government job."