By Donalevan Maines
It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels, as the late Kitty Wells sang, but Christina Edwards Wells teases that her mom’s prayers convinced the Lord to bring her daughter home from Las Vegas, Nevada.
“Coming back to Pasadena in 2014 has brought me so many opportunities,” says Wells, who parlayed last summer’s Pride Superstar win into her professional musical theater debut in The Honky Tonk Angels Holiday Spectacular, through December 31 at Stages Repertory Theatre.
“I play Charilee Chess, a gospel-singing, psychic manicurist who becomes a honky tonk angel,” says Wells. “She will read your palm while doing your nails.”
The production, which opened November 11, is the regional premiere of Stages founder Ted Swindley’s holiday-themed follow-up to his 2015 jukebox musical, The Honky Tonk Angels.
“Honky Tonk Angels makes audiences laugh until they cry,” crowed a newspaper critic from the Tulsa World in Oklahoma, while the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper in North Carolina cautioned, “You’ll have to step on your toes to keep them from tappin’.”
Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, Kelley Peters, and Holland Vavra starred in last year’s production of The Honky Tonk Angels that Mitchell Greco directed and choreographed at Stages. Then they performed it at Miller Outdoor Theatre in September, playing wide-eyed dreamers who meet on a bus bound for Nashville, Tennessee.
A six-piece band (piano, bass, drums, pedal steel guitar, fiddle, and lead/rhythm guitar) accompanied the trio on country-and-western classics such as “Stand by Your Man,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “9 to 5,” “Delta Dawn,” and “Harper Valley PTA.”
Peters (as Darlene) and Vavra (as Sue Ellen) are back in The Honky Tonk Angels Holiday Spectacular, but the “mysterious absence” of McCurdy’s character, Angela, provides the opening for Wells as Charilee.
Vavra was on the spot in terms of helping “discover” Wells when the Stages favorite helped judge a preliminary night in the Pride Superstar marathon talent showcase at Meteor.
Vavra returned with McCurdy to see Wells best three other finalists (Leo King, Morena Roas, and Mel Rose) and win the season 10 crown by singing “I Am Changing” from the Broadway musical Dreamgirls.
“The song resonates with me deeply,” says Wells, who is 40. “The past few years, I have focused on the concept of me personally changing, maturing, and growing. I’m not a finished product, like a butterfly, but I am coming out of my cocoon.”
She adds, “I came out of the closet when I was 28. It took me a long time to be honest and come to grips with who I am. I had my kids, I was married, and then separated. It was all part and parcel. Whether you’re a teenager or an adult, [when you tell your] family, you ask them to respect what you’re doing.”
As a teenager, recalls Wells, “I sang at everything. I sang every Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey song known to man.”
She says her “epic moment” at Pasadena High School came in 1994, her senior year, when she sang “I Will Always Love You” at the annual coed Emerald Pageant.
“It’s a big beauty pageant for seniors only,” she explains. “I had sung in it in prior years, but my senior year I was both a contestant and the entertainment; I sang while the judges were doing their scores. I didn’t place, but I was happy to get to strut down the runway, and to get to sing. It is a cool memory.”
Following her marriage, Wells became a licensed vocational nurse, first working in Ohio before moving to The Silver State and studying at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas to become a registered nurse.
In Las Vegas, she met her partner of six years, Tanya Caldera, who hails from that other Pasadena in California. They became a family of five, with Caldera’s son, Jay, now 17, joining the singer’s two sons, Ethan, now 18, and Ty, who turned 15 in November.
In May 2014, Wells learned that her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, so the women and their sons moved to Pasadena, Texas, to help care for her.
“I always tease my mother about how she talked to God [to come up with] a way to bring me and the kids home,” says Wells. “At first, the biggest question was what would be the best treatment for her, but she ended up having chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery—all three. The whole family rallied together, and she is now in remission. I have helped so many patients—having gone through it with them opened up so many windows and doors in my mind. That gave me more to worry about [with my mother]. It hit so close to home.”
Finally able to exhale in the summer of 2015, Wells told a fellow nurse at Clear Lake Regional Medical Center about how she wanted to start singing again. The colleague told her about tryouts for the musical Hairspray at Art Park Players in Deer Park. Wells was cast as Motormouth Maybelle, the sassy owner of a Baltimore record shop who hosts “Negro Day” on “The Corny Collins Show,” and sings “Big, Blonde and Beautiful.” (Jennifer Hudson claims that role in this month’s Hairspray Live! on NBC, opposite Harvey Fierstein, Sean Hayes, Rosie O’Donnell, Paul Vogt, Billy Eichner, Garrett Clayton, Derek Hough, Kristin Chenoweth, Martin Short, Ariana Grande, and newcomer Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad.)
This year, Wells returned to Art Park Players to perform in the ensemble of the Mel Brooks musical The Producers. One of her characters in that Tony Award-winning show was Shirley, a lesbian electrician.
Wells says her favorite part of The Honky Tonk Angels Holiday Spectacular is performing a Motown Christmas medley.
The show also combines Yuletide classics (including “Silent Night,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”) with the comedic “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and Nashville staples like “Coat of Many Colors” by Dolly Parton and “Burning Love” by Dennis Linde.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.