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Kelley Abbey has hit the big time in her dual role as a principal dancer and the choreographer of Fame The Musical .
On stage, actor, dancer and singer Kelley Abbey crackled with an energy that got the audience's heart jumping. As the Latina Carmen Diaz in Fame The Musical , Abbey's perfectly toned body glistened with sweat as she sizzled across the stage in a steamy salsa. Her black hair shone as she twirled under the intense lights and she hammed it up: "I respect ya Schlomo. Ya got da juice, I swear."
It's no surprise the role is tailored for the Queensland-born performer. She is, after all, the choreographer who gives the show the move and momentum which has made it a hit with Sydney audiences.
But away from the bright lights and the raked stage, sitting backstage in baggy pants and a hooded jacket, Kelley Abbey lo oked less the leading lady of the show which is set in New York's School of Performing Arts and more like one of the school's students.
Single and in her mid thirties, the one-time Club Buggery choreographer revelled in the pressure the two roles of lead and choreographer have created. "I must have been mad to take this on, but I'm enjoying the challenge."
While she meets such demands head-on, she viewed herself as shy and not particularly aggressive on and off the stage. "I never considered myself in a lead role. I was auditioning other people and choreographing but then I got excited by the audition and decided to have a go myself. With Fame I got into the final five and then landed the lead. It was pretty amazing," she said.
While she may be a little reserved out of the limelight, when she's on stage she pulls out all stops to breathe life into the character. "When I was in New York, I pretended to be a lo cal when I ordered food. Taking on that kind of persona was the only way I'd ever be served," she said in her best New York accent, one she learnt from tapes she made on the city's streets.
Abbey is no stranger to the spotlight - and a leading role. Last year she was assistant choreographer on Grease - The Arena Spectacular when the understudy's dream came true. Dannii Minogue fell ill and Abbey went straight into the role of tough girl Rizzo with little notice.
But the defining point of her career was in 1997 when she made the leap from the chorus line to leading lady in Sweet Charity . Abbey delivered the goods with a verve that prompted a standing ovation on opening night. Her parents, Eric and Jill , had flown from Queensland to Melbourne to watch their daughter perform.
But within a couple of months Abbey was f orced to draw on inner steel when her father died and she had to get through every performance with a smile. "It was incredibly daunting, getting up on stage and singing and dancing every night when I felt like crying on the couch," she said.
Life has had some twists for the consummate professional who pursued dancing as a silent form of expression only to switch to a more vocal one - acting.
After arriving in Sydney when she was 17 Abbey's future took a profitable turn when she rediscovered high profile dancer-turned-director David Atkins (director of Fame The Musical ) who cast her in Dancin' Man . "In 1991, talent scouts saw me in Dancin' Man and offered me the character of JoJo in the television soapie E Street . I jumped at the chance even though I was worried about having a speaking role."
Any fears of actin g she may have had soon evaporated when Abbey burst on to the small screen with a punch to the chiselled jaw of actor Marcus Graham . Hate mail and a stalker prompted her to ask the writers of E Street to soften the character from nasty to comic relief.
" David and I go back a long way. When I was 15, I did pre-match entertainment at the Winfield Cup and I fell in a hole and sprained my ankle. David carried me into the hospital and that's how our friendship started." Nearly 20 years later Abbey sat in her Star City dressing room popping jelly beans into her mouth. She eats a packet for every performance to keep her energised.
She presented a very different person from the brassy women she often portrays. In fact, she came across as being quite spiritual. Abbey meditates, has an image of buddha stuck on her mirror and reads books by Hollywood's favourite new-age guru Deepak Chopra .
She is writing her own musical and is considering a future in f ilm but at the moment she only has the time, energy and imagination for Fame . "Before every performance, I get the entire cast in acircle holding hands and we all say a prayer or affirmation. We become one before going on stage."
Abbey has graduated to her role as lead and choreographer of Fame with high distinction. She knows she has snared the dancer's dream ticket of performing her own choreography.
On stage as the dazzling ambitious Carmen Diaz, Abbey has an in-your-face talent that will take her places. She's got all da juice she needs.
Sun Herald Tempo - 10 October 1999
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