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Eaglecrest, UNC graduate Andy Kelso knows the neon lights are bright on Broadway

November 3, 2018 


Terry Frei 

Andy Kelso had a long run as Sky in “Mamma Mia” on Broadway. Joan Marcus photo.

While in the University of Northern Colorado’s renowned School of Theatre Arts, Andy Kelso played guitar, wrote songs and sang for a band called Dizzynova. The buddies played at a lounge or two near campus, plus at Herman’s Hideaway and the Paramount Café in Denver.

A scholarship acting major who took musical theater classes only as electives, Kelso was in a grand total of one UNC musical. That was “West Side Story,” and he snapped his fingers and rumbled as a Jet.

This is not the resume of a Broadway musical star, is it?


In 2014 and 2015, the Best in Show winner at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was rewarded with a one-night, walk-on part in the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots..” UNC grad Andy Kelso was playing Charlie Price both times. Here in 2014, he’s at left, with Sky, the wire fox terrier and Best in Show; Billy Porter (Lola); and another Coloradan, Wheat Ridge High graduate Annaleigh Ashford (Lauren). Kevin Thomas Garcia photo for “Kinky Boots.”

Yet 16 years after his 2002 graduation from UNC, Kelso is established as a bona fide big-type, bright-lights lead, mostly thanks to his roughly three-year New York run (in two stints) as Charlie Price in “Kinky Boots,” composed by rock icon Cyndi Lauper.

That followed his breakthrough as Sky in the ABBA jukebox musical, “Mamma Mia,” a role he also played on Broadway for nearly three years; and a stint as Fiyero in the national touring company of the wickedly popular and seemingly immortal “Wicked.”

I caught up with Kelso this past week, and as we chatted, he was at his home in Maplewood, N.J., where he lives with his wife Sheila and toddler son, Jude.

“It’s a great foundation and the thing I learned most from going to UNC was the discipline you need to be an actor,” Kelso, now 38, said. “They really run the department like it’s the Army. You have to be exactly on time, and you have to know your lines exactly. One of the main things was learning that ethic.”

He brought up the since-retired Tom McNally, UNC’s long-time theater arts professor.

“He was really amazing, teaching me the fundamentals of what acting was and techniques that are the foundation,” Kelso said. “If I didn’t have that foundation, I wouldn’t be able to unlock all the other doors and peel off all the other layers of all the experiences and training I’ve had since then.”

Kelso was raised in Aurora and attended Eaglecrest High School. When he was a freshman, his older sister insisted he audition for the school’s spring musical, “The Secret Garden.”

He was cast as … nobody. He was assigned to run the spotlight.

A star was not born.

Yet he gravitated to the theater kids the rest of his stay at Eaglecrest and was in plays and musicals, without foreshadowing stardom. He had the bug, but only to the extent that he thought he might dabble in community theater after graduation and when he was in the real world, perhaps as a recording studio sound engineer. That was the plan when he first headed to Colorado State University for a year.

“I realized I was missing theater and acting,” he said. “Then I auditioned for UNC, got accepted, and the rest is history.”

Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.

After graduating from UNC, he moved back into the basement of Steve and Cheryl Kelso’s home in Aurora. For a year and a half, he performed at the Country Dinner Playhouse and the Walden Family Playhouse (“May they rest in peace,” he said wistfully), plus the Arvada Center. The experiences amounted to his graduate school.

He moved to New York in 2003 and landed work in the Theatre District.

As a waiter at Puleo’s.

“I waited a lot of tables and waited in line at a lot of auditions,” he said.

He admits he was just good enough as a waiter to avoid being fired … and that it was touch and go at times. He also worked at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in Lincoln Center and enjoyed that more.

After doing some regional theater and showcases, his break came. He landed an ensemble and understudy role in a national tour of “Mamma Mia.” He was giddy.

“It’s great to be in a national tour of a show still on Broadway because then you’re in the network,” he said, meaning it might lead to a move to the Broadway cast.

That happened sooner than he could have dreamed. Before he joined the tour, he was asked to audition for the role of Sky — the about-to-be-married boyfriend of Sophie, Donna Sheridan’s daughter — and got it.

He was Sky from October 2005 to September 2008. The next three years, he did readings and regional work, including as Mark in “Rent,” and then got the “Wicked” national tour gig. The production played Denver in the spring of 2012, and he temporarily moved back into his parents’ basement.


Andy Kelso as Fiyero and Mamie Parris as Elphaba in the national touring production of “Wicked,” which had a six-week stand in Denver in spring 2012. Joan Marcus photo.

“It was six weeks in Colorado and at the Buell Theatre, which was the place I had seen a lot of shows growing up, and it felt like full cycle,” he said.

The agreement was that he could get out of his nine-month contract early if he had the chance to join the in-development “Kinky Boots.” That call came and in the show’s out-of-town tryout in Chicago in the fall of 2012 and on Opening Night in New York in March 2013, Kelso was Harry, the lead’s best friend, while serving as the understudy for Charlie.

“It was really hard,” he said. “When you’re putting together a show from the ground floor, you don’t get any understudy rehearsal in general until the show is up and running and it’s what we call ‘frozen’ after its opening.”

He went on as Charlie “10 to 15” times as Stark Sands’ understudy, all pre-planned for Sands’ time off. (In other words, there were no last-second alerts along the lines of, “Stark’s sick…You’re Charlie tonight!”) And when Sands left the show, Kelso had to audition again for the lead and got it, which is far from automatic for an original understudy.

He played Charlie, a difficult role that includes not just singing, but dancing and athletic moves on a moving shoe factory conveyor belt, from January 2014 to August 2016 and again for seven weeks in 2017. At the start of his run as Charlie, another Coloradan, Wheat Ridge High graduate Annaleigh Ashford, played Lauren, the woman (spoiler alert!) Charlie ends up with at the closing curtain.


Lifelong Broncos fan Andy Kelso sang the national anthem at the Broncos-Chargers game in 2014. Denver Center for the Performing Arts photo by John Moore. 

In the fall of 2014, during one of his scheduled breaks, Andy and Sheila took their honeymoon and then before returning to the show, Kelso sang the national anthem at the Chargers-Broncos game in Denver. A rabid Broncos fan, he called that experience “a dream” and “one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done.”

Between his two runs in “Kinky Boots,” he appeared as Lenny on the widely praised but short-lived Amazon series, “Good Girls Revolt.”

I asked Kelso about the challenge of playing a single role for so long. How did he keep it fresh and avoid going on automatic pilot some nights?

“Long runs are a blessing but definitely tricky as an actor because there is no way to train for them,” Kelso said. “But the bottom line is that it’s my job. Giving a quality, fresh performance is what I was hired to do. And most of the time, it’s surprisingly easy to stay present and in the moment, especially with a role like Charlie, which is so demanding that you really don’t have much choice but to stay focused on what you are doing.

“Of course, there are days when the thought of getting through a performance seems mundane or overwhelming. But inevitably, when the lights go down and the show starts, something clicks and it’s easy to overcome those feelings and enjoy doing the work.”

But there came the day ­— actually twice — when he was done playing Charlie.


Andy Kelso. Photo courtesy andykelso.com

Next is a starring run from July 6-15 as Jerry in “The Full Monty” in the Pittsburgh CLO summer musical series. One of his co-stars will be Broadway and television veteran Anita Gillette. Pittsburgh is Steve Kelso’s hometown, so Andy’s parents will come in for a performance and then head up to Maplewood for a visit with Andy, Sheila and young Jude.

And beyond that for Andy?

“I’m just looking for the next thing,” he said. “Since I’ve left ‘Kinky Boots,’ I’ve done a handful of different readings for new shows and some of them either aren’t moving on or I’m not continuing with them for whatever reason.”

That’s the actor’s life. They teach you about it at UNC.








» To learn more about Andy Kelso, go to http://www.andykelso.com.

» For more information about UNC Theater Arts and Dance alumni, go to arts.unco.edu/theatre/alumni.



PART TWO ON ANDY KELSO: Stepping back into the "Kinky Boots" lead to close the show's long run