Oklahoma native Chris VanDenhende is returning to his home state by way of “Chicago.”
The actor, who hails from Tulsa, is playing two supporting roles in the national touring production of the award-winning musical, which is coming to the Civic Center Music Hall this week for eight performances. The show then goes to his hometown for eight shows Jan. 21-26 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
“Chicago” marks his biggest show to date and his first national tour.
“I couldn't ask for much more with this job, I really couldn't,” VanDenhende said by phone during a hometown holiday visit. “I'm so excited for my friends and family and teachers and just everybody to get to see what I've done and see how my talent has gone from doing children's productions of ‘The Nutcracker' all the way to here.”
VanDenhende started dance and voice classes when he was 9 years old on the advice of a teacher who noticed he shared her love of music.
After graduating from Tulsa's Edison High School, he went to the University of Tulsa to pursue a degree in petroleum engineering. But after three semesters, he decided he was on the wrong career path.
He initially followed his love of dance to Los Angeles, where he auditioned for the ABC reality show “Dance War.” He made the top 30 but was actually glad when he didn't move on to the next round of competition.
“Essentially it was like a three-day, nearly 24-hour-a-day boot-camp type situation of learning songs and dance choreography, all to be put on display for like the final competition before they took the number down from 30 to 16,” he said.
“That was a crazy experience. It definitely shed light that reality TV is not a route I would like to take to success.”
Instead, he chose a more traditional path to making it in musical theater: He packed up and moved to New York about five years ago.
“When I moved to New York, I had no friends there. I had the money in my bank account and a dream,” he said.
After 2½ years, he hadn't made much headway and wondered whether he'd made a mistake.
“I kind of gave myself the ultimatum that I was going to save up money, quit my job and focus nonstop on performing exclusively. And I did just that: saved up my money for about six months, quit my job and started taking dance class, going to the gym and taking voice lessons like it was my job — because at that point, it was.”
His dedication paid off: He was cast as part of the ensemble for “Trouble: A New Rock Musical,” an official selection of the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Road to ‘Chicago'
After “Trouble,” VanDenhende, 27, worked as a performer for Holland America cruise line for six months, and when he returned to New York, he started on the long road to “Chicago,” which involved auditioning six times. Since he wasn't a member of the Actors' Equity union then, he started in the last group at a chorus call that drew 150 hopefuls.
“I made the cut there. Then, they kept me to sing and I came back to sing. And then, they kept me from there, so they brought me back on another day. Then, that just kept happening over and over ... to the final call,” he said. “At that point, there were 20 boys and 20 girls, and that was the most intimidating room I've ever walked in, just extremely beautiful, extremely talented kids, all of which deserved to be in the production just as much as I did.”
When he finally got word last July that he had been cast, it came as a shock.
“To be honest, I thought because so much time had passed, that I did not book the job initially. So, I had a cry and I let it go and I was like, ‘You know, I made it all the way to the end.' It was such a huge step. And then I got a call and ... I screamed at the top of my lungs, ran around my apartment. It was like a dog following a laser pointer. It was ridiculous,” he said with a laugh.
Starting in August, he and the rest of the ensemble rehearsed for 2½ weeks, learning John Kander and Fred Ebb's snazzy songs and Bob Fosse's challenging choreography. On the last day before they flew out for Tacoma, Wash., and the first full dress rehearsals and performances, they were joined by the lead actors, including John O'Hurley, who plays the “Razzle Dazzle” lawyer Billy Flynn.
“He's been on ‘Seinfeld,' he's done ‘Family Feud,' he's done more soap operas than you can shake a stick at. His sense of humor is so great and he's so easy to work with and he's such a nice guy,” VanDenhende said. “Every day when I'm on stage, I'm watching all of the lead characters, because one day that's where I would like to be.”
In the first act of the Prohibition-era musical, VanDenhende plays Sgt. Fogarty, the police officer who arrests chorus girl Roxie Hart for the murder of her lover. In Act 2, the former Tulsan plays the judge who presides over Roxie's trial, where she and Flynn charm the jury in her favor.
“I love doing the supporting roles in the show and getting to act and sing and dance. It's great to do a show like ‘Chicago,' where every single performer has to be a triple-threat,” he said.