Pontiac-raised dancer advances theater career in ‘Chicago’ – The Oakland Press
“Chicago” runs from March 28 to April 2 at the Fisher Theater in Detroit. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
James Vessel spent his high school and college years in the Detroit area and developed a passion for dance and eventually theater. But one place he never went to at that time was the Fisher Theatre.
That changes this week when Vessel, 31, who now lives in New York, returns as part of the cast of Fisher’s “Chicago” through April 2. It’s her first national tour, and a step forward in a career that has been on the rise since she was a student at the Pontiac Academy For Excellence.
“It’s very refreshing to feel like there’s a renewal in my career, a new beginning,” says Vessel, who portrays a sheriff and is on the jury for “Chicago,” by phone from a tour stop in Madison, Wisconsin. “I’m really enjoying the experience of touring so much and doing this in a new way.”
Musical theater was not part of Vessel’s original path, however.
A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he came to the metro area as a teenager to live with his father, who moved north to be with his family after Vessel’s parents separated. (Ontzia’s father and other relatives are still around.) Ontzia was also an athlete at the Academy, but found herself dancing in her senior year, when she and some friends choreographed a hip-hop competition at school.
“We saw a lot of contemporary dance and incorporated that into our routine,” recalls Vessel, who at the time hoped to pursue a career in the sciences. The group put on a performance for classmates and teachers, and it was a science teacher who encouraged them to take a ballet class. “I fell in love with dance after taking two adult ballet classes,” says Vessel. “That’s when I decided I didn’t want to study math and science. I wanted to become a performer.
“I knew I had to do that while I was younger. I could always go back to school if I wanted to do an engineering degree or something similar. But if I were to be an interpreter, this was the time.”
Vessel auditioned for Wayne State University’s dance program, though she had to wait a semester before she was finally accepted. She eventually received a full scholarship and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance, also studying with Complexions Contemporary Ballet Company and, upon graduation, with Jeffrey Ballet’s Concert Group in New York. Vessel became a full-time dancer at Ballet Memphis and then began working in musicals through the Playhouse on the Square, landing roles in “Memphis the Musical,” “Mama Mia,” “Rock of Ages,” “Dreamgirls” and more. . because he moved to the world of stage music.
“I love to inspire people; that was my main focus as a dancer, to connect with the public,” explained Vessel. With musical theatre, however, “there is an even greater human connection with what I am doing on stage. You have more parts of speech, more human interaction where you’re engaging the audience. Especially (“Chicago”) you will go on this trip with us in the show. We have to pull you.
“I like that about the arts in general. We are not only artists to perform and feel the work we are doing, but to create and create connections within each other, without our group, but also within the community that comes to see us.’
Vessel won a 2002 Oscar for “Chicago,” but never saw it on stage, where the 1920s crime story was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and was Broadway’s second-longest-running show. He is particularly relishing the opportunity to execute the Bob Fosse choreography, which is once again different from Vessel’s other productions.
“It’s very technical in a specific way,” he says. “I feel like the things in the show can connect with someone off the street; you don’t need to have a huge dance vocabulary to understand what we are conveying. But the moments we use are also very technical. It’s stylistic.’
Vessel has started with “Chicago”, but is already looking ahead. “There are so many shows I want to do,” she says of Fosse’s “Dancin’,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Wicked” and “Kinky Boots” on her wish list. “I could go on and on,” he says. “There are a lot of shows that have a special place that I’m connected to the music or I’ve seen clips and I’ve fallen in love with the show.”
And Vessel believes that delving into musicals will allow her to pursue a theatrical career beyond her time as a dancer.
“I’m a little older than a lot of my teammates,” he admits, “so I don’t know how long I’ll have the energy or the stamina it takes. But I’d like to do this for a while and maybe find a Broadway show so I can be at home, where my partner is. That’s the goal, at least.”
“Chicago” runs March 28 through April 2 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. $30 and up. 313-872-1000 or broadwayindetroit.com.