It has been several years since an actor was our Chicagoan of the year in theater — and even longer since the honor went to someone just 28 years old. But then Jessie Mueller is not an ordinary performer. Nor has she just lived through a typical year.
Mueller's breakout 2011 began at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire in February, when she played Miss Adelaide in Matt Raftery's production of "Guys and Dolls." The show had its problems — this was, after all, Raftery's directing debut — but Mueller was one of his key solutions. Even though she was known mostly for playing sweet-voiced ingenues, and even though she is younger than ideal for this role, Mueller suddenly unleashed a comic persona with startling force. She flung herself into that eternal fiancee, kept on ice for 14 years by that louse Nathan Detroit, with humor, power, charm, vulnerability and enough spark to set that round suburban stage ablaze.
In June, Mueller showed up at the Marriott again in "Shout," another mediocre show. This time, she nearly blew the roof off the hotel lobby with a blistering rendition of the 1967 number "How Can I Be Sure?" (originally recorded by the Young Rascals) that was so technically superb and emotionally rich that it nearly took one's breath away.
By this point, it was clear that something was going with Mueller, who seemed to ratchet up her work to a whole different level and who seemed to be particularly invested in the lines "How can I be sure in a world that's constantly changing?"
That change a-coming was the Broadway production of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," that would see Mueller plucked from relative obscurity (except in Chicago, where she is part of a well-known family of performers) and dropped into a major Broadway lead, singing opposite Harry Connick Jr. and suddenly finding herself being photographed by Vanity Fair wearing Oscar de la Renta, and performing on "The View." This was a highly unusual circumstance — few actresses in their 20s with no New York credits make their Broadway debuts in one of the starring roles in a major musical, especially across from a bona fide star. But it was not hard to see why it happened: Mueller's voice is an extraordinary instrument, especially when applied to the American songbook.
A fairy tale end to her year would have seen Mueller starring on Broadway atop a major hit that seemed set to run for years. But "On a Clear Day" was, as fate would have it, the weakest of all three of these shows. Its future thus is cloudy. But Mueller still shined, as much as she could. And it was evident to some that Connick only really seemed comfortable in the scenes where he was singing with Mueller. The Broadway community has taken notice; in musicals, Mueller is the new face, the big find, of 2011.
"I don't have a plan," Mueller said recently by phone from New York, calling her changed life "strange but fun."
"I know not to expect anything, just truly trying to take all this moment by moment," Mueller said. "I know mine is a total Cinderella story of coming to New York — I've seen so many of my really talented friends audition and audition and get nothing — and I know what happened to me is really abnormal."
Indeed. But then so is her talent.Copyright © 2015, RedEye