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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, October 16, 2000

"I'm a very sweet girl and never, ever think I am better than
anyone. I've never killed or hit anybody," said Heather Purcell,
who plays the role of Velma Kelly in "Chicago."

Lady and  the tramp

Sweet by nature, it took sweat
for Heather Parcells to inhabit
the role of vixen Velma

By Tim Ryan

HEATHER Parcells has the sparkling eyes, childlike smile, and bubbling-over excitement of a kid celebrating her first Christmas.

And though this self-described "girl" is 22 and a recent college graduate, Parcells joyously gushes about how she celebrated Christmas in August when within a week of landing in New York City she was cast as Velma Kelly, one of the lead characters in the musical "Chicago."

"When they called, I said 'You're kidding!' I didn't believe it," said Parcells who thought she might be cast as an understudy.

When all the words had finally reached her brain that she had won the role of "the vixen," the pragmatic Parcells began stressing about the year's lease she had just signed for a New York City apartment. The national tour would last 10 months.


Bullet What: 'Chicago,' the musical
Bullet When: Tomorrow through Oct. 29
Bullet Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Bullet Tickets: $25-$69; Blaisdell box office and TicketPlus outlets, or by phone at 526-4400

"I ended up subletting it to a friend," Parcells said laughing. "It was probably the least of my worries."

"Chicago" is based on a 1926 play by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. It tells the story of Roxie Hart, a chorus girl who murders her unfaithful husband then manages to avoid prison with the help of razzle-dazzle lawyer Billy Flynn. She uses the trial to propel herself to showbiz stardom along with another murderous chorus girl, Velma Kelly.

The musical was created by John Kander and Fred Ebb, known for such hit musicals as "Cabaret" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," and its cast included Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. It was revived on Broadway in 1997, spawning a national tour, and went on to win six Tony Awards.

Parcells, who has limited acting experience, says the role of Velma is the most difficult character she's portrayed.

"I am not like Velma in any way," she said. "I'm a very sweet girl and never, ever think I am better than anyone. I've never killed or hit anybody."

The lack of any violent tendency aside, the youthful Parcells first had to deal with playing a character in her mid 30s.

"Makeup, wigs and costumes do a lot, but it's the mind set that makes you into an older person," she said. "When I walk, I put all my energy in my feet.

"Generally, younger people are more bouncy and gliding, more frenetic. Also an older, wiser person doesn't need to to talk so high pitched to be heard. People who are in control can talk in a controlled way and know people will still listen."

The show's director had to make Parcells believe she was "on top of the world like Velma." "Velma never pretends to be a diva or a vixen because she is a diva and a vixen," Parcells said.

Born in Syracuse, New York, and raised in Newport News, Va., Parcells' interest in musical theater began during her sophomore year in high school and blossomed her senior year at Florida State University.

"I was always this little kid who banged pots and pans in the kitchen when mom was cooking or I was running around the house singing," said Parcells who enjoys being the center of attention and "winning."

"When I did (competitive) horseback riding, I always did it to win," she said. "I liked proving to people I could do things. That's not the right reason to do things, but it's how I was.

"Now it's all about doing things because I'm enjoying it. Once I stopped trying to prove myself this process became easier for me."

But being in "Chicago" hasn't always been easy.

Being hired for a role in a 10-month tour was one thing, meeting the director's standards was another matter. Early on, Parcells had some doubts she could pull it off. The director and choreographer had to push the actress beyond her own frustrations during early rehearsals until she began feeling she was Velma.

"I was holding myself back because I lacked confidence; it was awful," she said. "But I had to go through it to understand it. I wasn't doing what they wanted and they saw it and called me on it."

It was during the second performance of this "Chicago" tour, in Vancouver on Oct. 6, when Parcells understood her dream as reality.

"Tonya (Wathen who plays Roxie) and I walked on stage (during the audience ovation) and she said 'Heather, we're the leads in the national tour of 'Chicago.' Isn't that cool!' "

In Hawaii, Parcells has more down-to-earth fantasies.

"I want to have a mai tai, I want to surf, I want to learn how to snorkel, I want, one day, to just sit on the beach, and I want to go to the aquarium."

And beyond her "Chicago" dream?

"I'm going to Broadway baby."

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