For musical theater actress Courtney Reed, the road to Broadway started with a mouse and a precocious red-headed girl in productions at Children’s Theatre of Elgin.
“My first role was as a mouse in ‘Cinderella’,” Reed says with a laugh. “I remember being very nervous.”
But the moment Reed realized she was never happier than when she was on stage came at around the age of 10, when she performed the lead in the popular musical “Annie.”
“I loved every part of it; I loved the community of it,” Reed recalls. “I was heartbroken when the show was over. I felt I could be my true self when I was on stage and among people who were kind of weirdos like me.”
‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’
When: To May 14
Where: Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Reed, who grew up in Elgin, attended Larkin High School’s Visual and Performing Arts Academy and the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. She performed in a few Chicago shows (at Noble Fool and Pheasant Run) before quickly landing in “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway.
Now, after more Broadway success (“Aladdin,” “In the Heights”), Reed is back in town leading the first national tour of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” as Satine, the love-starved courtesan. The stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie musical also stars Conor Ryan as Christian, the young composer who falls in love with Satine.
“I love that I get to flex my muscles with this role,” Reed, 37, says. “In the past, I’ve portrayed some amazing characters, but they didn’t necessarily get into the nitty gritty the way that I think Satine does. She is so broken and doesn’t have the ability to just fall in love like Christian does.”
The winner of 10 Tony Awards, “Moulin Rouge” is directed by Alex Timbers and features a book by John Logan and choreography by Sonya Tayeh. Described as “sensory overload,” it’s set in a world of splendor, romance and excess filled with Bohemians and aristocrats who inhabit Belle Epoque Paris at the turn of the 20th century.
The show’s music, like the movie, is drawn from more than 160 years of popular music including 70 songs from artists including Beyonce, Rihanna, Elton John, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, The Rolling Stones and many more. (The song list has been updated to include popular songs released since the movie’s debut.)
The one original song in the show, “Come What May,” sung with her co-star Ryan, is Reed’s favorite: “It’s such an incredible duet. Conor is such an amazing singer and I love all these moments with him.”
Timbers, a longtime fan of Reed, says she is the proverbial triple threat — “an incredible singer, dancer, actor” — but adds that she’s really “a quadruple threat.”
“She has this grit and tenacity but also wit, which is something we don’t think about these days,” he says. “She’s very clever, and she finds ways to turn the language and twist the lyrics in ways that really surprise you.”
After college, Reed planned on trying her luck in Los Angeles: “I thought there was no way I was going to get on Broadway; it’s so competitive.”
Instead, her 2001 move to New York proved to be fast and furious. Reed assumed she was auditioning for the touring company of “Mamma Mia!,” but it was actually as a replacement and understudy in the Broadway run. Until then, she’d never been to New York nor seen a Broadway show.
“I was 22-years-old and here I was packing my bags,” Reed recalls. “I was so young and so green. I didn’t know a lot of things, and I learned so much in those first few years.”
Reed went on to perform as a replacement in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” and landed her first leading role in the 2014 Broadway debut of Disney’s “Aladdin,” where she originated the role of Jasmine, her favorite Disney princess.
“Jasmine was the first real, true ethnic Disney princess and with her long dark hair and olive skin I really identified with her growing up,” says Reed, whose mother is Vietnamese. “Plus, she’s sassy, very independent and says what she believes in.”
Casting for the touring version of “Moulin Rouge,” began just before the pandemic hit when everything was put on hold. Reed moved back to Chicago to be near her family and now lives in Lakeview. She’s thrilled to be bringing the show to Chicago audiences and still a bit amazed that she’s playing Satine (Nicole Kidman starred in the film version).
“I was a huge fan of the movie, but when word got out that it was going to be a musical I never thought I would be cast,” she recalled. “I don’t look anything like Nicole Kidman. I just feel so lucky; it’s a dream come true to dig into the heart of this role.”