Wayne State grad dances his way across the country in ‘CHICAGO’

Katie Frieden and company of the Chicago 25th Anniversary tour. (Jeremy Daniel, (C) Jeremy Daniel IG @JeremyDanielPhoto)

DETROIT – James Vessell is dancing his way across the country in the touring production of Broadway favorite CHICAGO, which is now on its 25th anniversary tour. Vessell, an accomplished dancer who has been seen in the prestigious companies of Ballet Memphis, Tallahassee Ballet and more, accredited his dance beginnings to his time at Wayne State University, where he got his BFA in Dance.

Vessell took the time to chat with us while on his tour stop in Madison, WI to talk about his Detroit roots and the impact of his time as a Warrior.

What was it like going on stage for the first time in CHICAGO?

I was so nervous. It’s so much energy and having the costumes, the lights, the music and singing all the parts, I just had so much energy that in that moment I was supposed to sit down and be what we call a “player” and just watch the show from the sides, I was still very on edge because I’ve wanted to be on and ready for the next part that I had to do. On the outside, I looked cool, but I was nervous and shaky.

Do you still get nervous now?

Oh, of course, because there are still things that I’m learning about the show. Sometimes when an actor swings out of the show, the dancers will swing in and they would have to do someone else’s part. Sometimes, I’ve had to do some of the things that I’ve done with one person with an entirely different actor, sometimes in an hour’s notice. It’s an exciting show to be a part of, you just have to always be invested because you just never know if you have to make some adjustments.

How does it feel to be returning to Detroit and performing in front of your peers?

I am so excited. So many friends and family members are coming, my professors. I am so happy that I can be at the Fisher, this will be my first time performing there. Detroit is just such a special place to me, it’s where I first started my dance career. To come back and show where I am now in my career, in front of people who have seen me from the very beginning of my training, it’s going to be a very heartfelt moment.

How do you think the Wayne State program helped you with your career?

I didn’t know anything about dance before going into this program. I initially went into the program undecided, but I was given a little sticky note from the director at the time telling me I showed a lot of promise in my audition. So, I took a bunch of dance classes and while being in the program, I was connected to prestigious dance organizations through summer intensives: American Ballet Theater, Joffrey Ballet School, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and those organizations helped me create networks to New York, where I started my career. Then that pushed me to Memphis where I got my first ballet job. While doing ballet there, I did musical theater shows outside of the company and that’s how I fell in love with musical theater.

Why do you think CHICAGO is so beloved that even after 25 years, fans are still loving it?

Because CHICAGO is such a relatable show. It’s fun, it’s entertaining. There’s a lot of intimate moments and the character development is beautiful. You just fall in love with these characters and with how they tell a story. You find that, even in the darkness of the show, there’s a sense of humor. The show is still very relevant and it’s going to be for a very long time. The music is just so enjoyable, the movement is so iconic. I’m so happy to be a part of the community to carry on the legacy of Bob Fosse. I don’t take this responsibility lightly.

The music really is just wonderful, I just listened to the original cast album this morning.

To hear it live every night reinvigorates me. It reminds me how important it is to continue the legacy and inspire other youth to continue and go out and be great in the world.

What’s your favorite part about your role as The Jury?

I love the challenge of going from embodying one character to the next. I like to think of it as make-up. Whenever I prepare for the show, I put on make-up and go into the player that I am for the show. When I get into that scene for the courtroom and going from one character to the next, it’s just like I’m putting on makeup. I take off the glasses and put on the hat, or grab the fan, or I’m grabbing the pipe. Now I’m embodying these different characters.

What are your dream roles?

I would love to do Lola in Kinky Boots. I would also love to be the Leading Player in Pippin. I don’t necessarily want to be a lead, but I would love to be a dancer in Moulin Rouge, which I am obsessed with right now. The choreographer is also from Wayne State.

Do you have any words of wisdom for fellow Wayne State Warriors who want to follow in your footsteps?

It’s all about perseverance. You’ve worked so hard every day on your craft. But in this industry, you don’t know when you’re going to have that next thing. You never know when the opportunity you want is around the corner. I definitely had moments in my career that made me feel like I wasn’t ready. Sometimes you don’t see the reward right away. We don’t always get that instant gratification in this art form. Sometimes you have to work, work, work, and then you’ll see the benefit of it. I’m just so grateful that I had been offered this opportunity to dance, sing and act on stage, and do it with a show that I enjoy, and a cast that I am so happy to be with.

CHICAGO runs at the Fisher Theatre from March 28th through April 2nd. For showtimes and tickets, visit BroadwayinDetroit.com.

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