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Theater & Dance

Tyler’s Illeana Kirven Gives the World CHICAGO

One of Broadway's most beloved musicals reaches Dallas this weekend, and one of its leads has close ties to our city.
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Illeana Kirven as Matron Mama Morton in "CHICAGO," which reaches Dallas this weekend. Jeremy Daniel

Illeana “Illy” Kirven takes bribes each night on stage as Matron “Mama” Morton in the touring production of the classic musical CHICAGO. Backstage, her castmates know her for taking her BTS Funko Pop! Figurines to the show’s many stops around the country. “BTS is my jam,” Kirven says. “I just love them.”

The accomplished actor loves learning about other cultures and people, an appreciation that’s come in handy throughout a career that’s taken her from her hometown of Tyler to all 50 states and beyond.

Kirven grew up loving the arts. From an early age, she attended a local dance school where she began to develop her theatrical skills. The early experiences gave her the tools she needed to succeed.

She took early roles at theaters in Texas cities like Galveston and Garland, eventually getting accepted into New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy. She knew she had a passion for theater, but “wasn’t sure how to get the foot in the door” at the time. The key to her many travels became the theater conferences where she auditioned in front of a variety of bookers. “From that, I was able to build a lot of regional work all over the country,” Kirven says, describing how she honed her craft by working with “amazing directors and choreographers.”

Kirven’s first national tour was with The Sunshine Boy,s starring Dick Van Patten and Frank Gorshin. When she first began playing Morton in 2018, she was performing in Florida for a run of shows at a dinner theater operated by APEX Touring, the production company running the national tour of CHICAGO. When the national tour picked up again following the pandemic, she was asked whether she would be interested in joining. While the casting team ended up having a different actor in mind, she stayed on file until she officially booked the role in February 2023.

“Fast forward to 2023 Valentine’s Day and I’m doing a show in St. Louis, and I literally butt-dialed my friend who was the company manager of the tour by accident,” Kirven says. After the initial confusion over who dialed who, her friend mentioned that one of CHICAGO’s producers was trying to reach out to her about joining the show’s tour. “It was the quickest I’ve ever hung up on anybody,” Kirven says, laughing as she recalled how she immediately called the producer to get the part.

Kirven joined CHICAGO for the show’s 25th-anniversary tours of South Korea and North America. “We were in Seoul, Busan, and Daegu, and it was just amazing being with other cultures and learning about how much they love CHICAGO,” Kirven says. She says the performances in South Korea felt “very different” because audiences there were much quieter during the show compared to American audiences. “It was a big difference, but it wasn’t a bad thing,” Kirven says, noting that the audiences “absolutely loved it at the end. I don’t think we had a show that wasn’t a standing ovation.”

Kirven prepared for her role on the tour in part by studying the many different interpretations of her character. “Everybody’s a different ‘Mama’ Morton,” Kirven says. “So, you can pull and choose what works for you, but in the end, it still has to fit your body and be true to who you are as an actor.” She also checked out original articles from a library to read up on the actual trials that inspired the play from which the musical is based.

She describes Morton, a Cook County Jail warden and booking agent, as a conniving businesswoman who wants to make money, but gives advice to the women in her cell block and acts as a friend to one of the show’s leads, Velma Kelly. “I do think she has a heart,” Kirven says.

Even after hundreds of shows over two years of touring for CHICAGO, Kirven says she still finds new nuances to portraying Morton, especially when she has the opportunity to watch the other characters onstage. She also believes those shows have given her the chance to say she’s now lived in every state in the country. “If I spent the night there, I’m gonna say that means I lived there, right?” Kirven says, laughing.

Kirven will return to North Texas for a run of shows from April 4 to 6 at the Winspear Opera House and from May 10 to 12 at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth.

“I have friends pretty much coming to every show (in Dallas), and then also friends coming to Fort Worth,” Kirven says, adding that she’s gotten to know people just about everywhere thanks to her travels.

Kirven expects the Texas audiences to know the story beats and music before the show even begins, just like the many audiences she’s performed for over the past two years. “I think the audience will really love it, and I think they’re ready for it,” Kirven says.

Showing May 10-12 at the Bass Performance Hall. Get your tickets here.

Author

Brett Grega

Brett Grega

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