Dennis Kelly had the aura of the classic song-and-dance man of times past. Debonair in a casual, off-handed way, he possessed a beautiful voice and a joyful personality that not only lit up many Chicago stages, but also could be heard in several musicals on Broadway and beyond.
Kelly lit up the lives of his fellow actors, as well — something that quickly became evident from the outpouring of affection on social media this weekend after news of his death began circulating.
The much-beloved Chicago actor died early Sunday at 72 of lung cancer, according to actress Ami Silvestri, his partner of 24 years.
“He was diagnosed just about three months ago, and it was already in a very late stage,” said Silvestri, who lived with Kelly in Evanston. “It really took us by surprise.”
Kelly starred on Broadway in “Into the Woods” (as Cinderella’s father, in the 2002 production), “Annie Get Your Gun” (in the 1999 revival starring Bernadette Peters) and “Damn Yankees” (as Joe Boyd), as well as in the national tours of “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Urinetown” and “Anything Goes” (starring Rachel York). But in Chicago, he was best known for his work as Ben in Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” a show he starred in at the now-defunct Candlelight Dinner Playhouse and Forum Theater in 1981 and 1988, and in an even more elaborate production at San Diego’s Starlight Musical Theatre — where, director William Pullinsi recalls: “When he sang ‘Too Many Mornings,’ you could hear a pin drop, and you could see people crying.”
Pullinsi first hired Kelly to work in Chicago.
“That was back in 1972, and I couldn’t find the right actor for a production of Sondheim’s ‘Company,’ so Ami [then Pullinsi’s wife] and I went to New York to hold auditions, and the minute we saw Dennis, we knew he was the right one,” Pullinsi said. “He was a very good actor with a gorgeous, magical singing voice.”
Kelly grew up in Southern California, where his parents were preachers. He began singing in church and touring with choral groups including the Norman Luboff singers. He graduated from Chapman University and headed east to work in summer stock. After that, he spent much of his time working in Chicago. He also had a very successful and lucrative career doing “industrials” — the corporate musicals used as marketing and team-building events that were popular until recent years.
At Candlelight, Kelly appeared in “La Cage aux Folles” and Maury Yeston’s musical “Phantom.” At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, in addition to “Follies,” he appeared in “Cymbeline” and “As You Like It.” He also was in the cast of the Northlight Theatre production of “Grey Gardens, and Jeanine Tesori’s musical “Caroline, or Change” at Court Theatre. At Theater at the Center in Munster, Indiana, he had roles in “La Cage aux Folles,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Knute Rockne, All American” and “The Sound of Music.”
Kelly also was featured on TV in “Boss,” “Detroit 187” and “Dollmaker.”
In a Facebook posting, Marc Bruni, the Broadway director of “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical,” wrote: “I had the pleasure of working with Dennis Kelly, a true gentleman of the theater, at the Goodspeed [Opera House, in Connecticut], over a decade ago, and then again a few years ago on the national tour of ‘Anything Goes.’ Thank you, Dennis, for your talent and bright spirit — and apart from those shows I also will always remember your performance that is immortalized on the recording of ‘Damn Yankees.’ I’m listening to ‘Near To You’ now and remembering you.”
“Dennis was a wonderful, kind, gentle man, with a fine character and a very positive outlook on life,” said Silvestri, who co-starred with Kelly in his last stage appearance last year in “On Golden Pond” at Theater at the Center. “He also was very funny, which was a great thing.”
Plans for a memorial celebration are in the works. In addition to Silvestre, survivors include a daughter, Raenelle; a sister, Christine; and Kelly’s first wife, Jeannie.