East London-born Broadway star Amra-Faye Wright has starred as Velma Kelly in the hit musical Chicago an incredible 2,700 times over a period of more than 18 years - more than any other performer in the world. And she's not done yet.
"I fell into this role," she says, "and I've been able to make a career out of it, which I didn't intend to do. It's a role I love wholeheartedly; I feel very blessed to have been able to do it this long."
Born in East London, Amra-Faye - who attended Clarendon Girls High - initially dreamt of a career as a ballet dancer. A versatile performer, she landed recurring roles in the Spectacular Musical Revues at Sun City.
She spent the following years developing her skills in various musical genres, including studying opera with Yamilla Tellinger and jazz vocals with Jazzwize in London, before obtaining a diploma in Contemporary Music at Allenby College in Johannesburg.
Amra-Faye's big break came when she was called back to South Africa from a dancing contract at the Sporting Club in Monte Carlo to return to Sun City to star in the extravaganza "Viva Sun City"! In 1994, she returned to Monaco for a period of two years as the star performer at the Cabaret du Casino de Monte Carlo. She spent the next three years starring in numerous musical extravaganzas in Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Egypt, the Mediterranean (on board the cruise ship, Mistral) and also performing in Sydney during the Olympic Games. Amra-Faye returned to South Africa in 1999 to co-star as the female lead in " Elvis Extravaganza", for which she won a Vita Award for best female performer in a musical. Other musicals to her credit include Sheila in "A Chorus Line", "Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk", and in May 2000, as Sandy in "Grease - the Stadium Spectacular" to an audience of 30 000. She has also write, directed and performed her own cabaret, "Rouge Pulp", which also featured a saxophonist and received broad critical acclaim during its run in Durban and Johannesburg. In 2002 she won the FNB Vita Award for Best Performance in a Musical by a Female for her second self-penned revue, "Drinks on Me".
She first played the iconic Velma in 2001, during a Chicago national tour of the UK. Since then, she’s also appeared in the South African, West End, Japanese and international touring companies of Chicago.
She made her Broadway debut in the role in 2006 and has taken it on again and again at the Ambassador Theatre for 13 years.
This is hardly a conventional path for a performer, but Wright reveals that her introduction to the musical theater world was also atypical.
“I didn't have any access to theater,” she says about growing up in South Africa. “Fortunately for me, I did have a fantastic classical ballet teacher in my small town."
It wasn’t until later in her 30s that Wright appeared in a few musical theatre productions in her home country. “It was only when I went to England and got this role quite by accident that I decided, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do,’” she says.
Job security is something many actors aspire to, but few find in their careers. "It doesn't happen in our industry very often—unless you're in that really top echelon or if you're in the chorus and can go from show to show," Wright says. "What a blessing to have been able to make a career out of Chicago."
This is my life and I'm very, very happy with it.
"Velma is ageless, really," she says. "The more life experience you have, the older you are, the more interesting your point of view becomes, the more you realise how little you actually know," she says. "When you're younger, you think you have a handle on things. As you get older, you realise you don't. That kind of letting go is the most wonderful feeling in the world. To be able to be in the same role and see how that has changed the way I approach Velma has been very interesting to me. Why shouldn't you see Velma in all her glory?"
It has crossed Wright's mind to seek out other performance opportunities.
"Over the years, there were moments when I thought, ‘Gosh, I really have got to get out of this show and explore a few other things.’ Then I've come back to it and thought, ‘Why? I'm so happy doing it.
"Being able to be in a stable position with Chicago has helped me to have that balance in my life, which I treasure.’ This is my life, and I'm very, very happy with it."
Sources: Broadway.com / ArtsLink