Hometown songstress Christina Wells is heading home and bringing her show-stopping voice, talent, and razzle-dazzle to the Hobby Center’s main stage—much to the delight of Theatre Under The Stars audiences. Wells is currently traveling across the nation, starring as Matron “Mama” Morton in the 25th-anniversary tour of Chicago. After years of preparation for this moment, her starring role is the realization of a lifelong dream for Wells—and she’s just getting started.
“I’m so excited to be returning to Houston!” Wells exclaims. The entertainer has been teasing her social-media followers with posts counting down the days until she hits the stage at Theatre Under The Stars. “The last time I was there was during The Little Mermaid when I played Ursula, and it was the most amazing experience. It got cut short because of COVID, and I always say that COVID stole my ‘sea witch.’ I am just counting the minutes until I come back.”
An early introduction to musical theater (and a brush with Lady Luck) ignited a spark within the out bi-racial performer. “When I was 15 years old, I would watch the [movie version of] Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand. And of course, Dream Girls was also a favorite. I used to listen to the LP record,” she says of her early musical-theater influences. “I used to listen to a radio station in Houston, and I won tickets to see South Pacific at Theatre Under The Stars. That was my very first time ever seeing a musical, and I remember sitting there with one of my friends from high school and saying, “One day, I want to do this.”
The artist credits TUTS artistic director Dan Knechtges with giving her an opportunity she never expected. “Dan did something that TUTS had never done before. When they were casting for Memphis, he opened the door to the community to audition. I went in to audition, and Dan turned to the man next to him and said, ‘She would be a great Silvia.’ That next year, for the summer show, they did All Shook Up and I got a phone call to be Sylvia!”
She went on to play “Sour Kangaroo” in the TUTS production of Seussical before taking her star turn as Ursula in the Disney classic. “TUTS did something really cool [during the COVID lockdown] where they featured people from their homes singing musical theater on their social media,” she recalls. “I made a video of myself singing in front of a green screen in my house, dancing in a purple dress. And in May of 2021, I got a phone call saying they wanted me to be Ursula in The Little Mermaid! It was my first main-stage performance. I was just so blessed and felt so honored that they would give me the chance to be a part of that gorgeous multicultural cast.”
With dreams of making it to Broadway, the America’s Got Talent alum took the advice of an agent who told her that in order to make it big, she needed to be seen—and one of the best ways to do that is to be cast in a national tour. Flash-forward to Wells’ current role in Chicago, which is the artist’s first national tour booking.
In her role as Matron “Mama” Morton, she is part of a legacy that she doesn’t take lightly. “I am the warden of Cook County’s correctional facility. There really was a female warden who ran the jail in the 1920s. These stories are plucked from real headlines from the ’20s in the Chicago Tribune,” Wells explains. “Matron ‘Mama’ Morton is a woman who’s in charge of all these really dangerous characters. I sing this big song that literally says, ‘You take care of me, and I’ll take care of you.’ That’s how ‘Mama’ makes sure that all the ladies of the correctional facility are taken care of—and that she’s taken care of, too.”
Chicago originally premiered in 1975, and the show has had a slew of household names playing the role of ‘Mama’ throughout the years. Wells carries the torch proudly, giving it her own flair and honoring those who preceded her. “I think whenever you play a character that people really know, you need to know the roots. You need to know the seeds of where it came from, because you need to give homage to that,” she says. “But then I think you need to let it live in your own body, and let it be you. Nobody wants to see an impersonation of somebody else. They want to see your take.”
Wells’ maternal instincts naturally added a softness to the character. “People will say, ‘Your Mama was so warm!’ And she is warm! You can [be loving, but still] not put up with any bull—both of those can exist inside the same person. That’s who I am as a mother. I’m gonna love you.”
And as for what audiences can expect in addition to her motherly warmth, she says, “I like to sing big. I like to sing loud!”
This 25th-anniversary production is an ode to the incredible legacy of the Broadway revival. “We’re an exact replica of the revival with Bebe Neuwirth, who played Velma Kelly,” Wells says. “Something that’s been an unexpected discovery for me has been the relationship between ‘Mama’ and Velma. The [pace of the show] is quick, so audiences have to pay attention and listen.”
After the pandemic cut her time as Ursula short, Wells doesn’t take a single second of her latest artistic venture for granted. “When the show starts and the overture plays and Logan Floyd, who plays our Velma, walks up the steps and you hear the audience go crazy every night, no matter what I’m doing, I stop and listen,” she says. “I love that feeling, both for the audience and for our cast. There’s something magical about knowing that you’re satisfying people, because they want to hear this thing they love.”
Performing on stages across America is something Christina never thought was possible. Having started out as a registered nurse before pursuing superstardom, her role in Chicago is humbling—but also the manifestation of years of hard work and perseverance. “I gave up singing when I was like 19 or 20. I ended up having my kids, and thought, ‘I gotta get a career.’ I went to nursing school and I had a job, raised my babies, and that’s what I did,” she admits. “Never, when I was wiping butts and giving people pills, was I like, ‘You know, someday I’m gonna be touring with a national tour.’”
The classic musical Chicago has been seen on stages and screens around the world. Wells encourages theatergoers to purchase tickets soon, because this touring cast is incomparable. “This production of Chicago is unlike most productions. There’s not anyone in this cast that’s been ‘stunt cast,’ and in the show just because they’re famous. Everyone in this cast is really talented. The bodies are out there. That click, click, click little finger movement,” Wells boasts about one of the show’s iconic choreographed moments, “it’s gonna give that sass and that secret that you want when you see Chicago.
“Theater means everything. It brings communities together. So come and cheer on your hometown girl, Christina!”
What: TUTS presents the 25th-anniversary tour of Chicago
When: Through Feb. 12
Where: The Hobby Center