Local vocalist and Broadway star Kelli Rabke discusses her musical journey and upcoming show at the BergenPAC.
It is often said that music runs in the blood. It pulses through a person’s veins from day one, a steady rhythm from the heart. For Bergen County vocalist and Broadway star Kelli Rabke, this inherent ability was nurtured in her living room as a little girl, candlestick microphone in hand, as she belted out songs from her mother’s Barbra Streisand Live album. Not from a musical family, Rabke discovered her unexpected gift, and fostered it. She began singing regularly in the sixth grade, and immediately surrounded herself with teachers and mentors who understood her talent, encouraging her to embrace what would soon become a reality far beyond any of her wildest showbiz dreams.
Rabke began her career at Ithaca College, where she majored in musical theatre, landing leading roles in numerous school productions. In fact, it was during an Ithaca performance of Bye Bye Birdie that her talent caught the attention of an agent from New York City.
“I started working that summer. I did a national commercial and a PBS Wonderworks TV special, got my SAG card, and figured I was already fulfilling my degree goals, so decided not to go back to Ithaca for my senior year,” says Rabke, who eventually did earn her musical theatre degree after transferring to Fordham at Lincoln Center.
While Rabke strayed away from live performance for some time while searching for a pilot during TV casting call season in Los Angeles, she always seemed to return back to the stage. She received her professional theatre union card while in a production of A Little Night Music, where she remained for six months.
“I didn’t even realize it at that point, but the company I was a part of was an unbelievably seasoned, talented cast of theatre
performers, including Glynis Johns, John McMartin, Jeff McCarthy, and many more,” Rabke notes.
The following year, after returning to the Metropolitan area, Rabke caught her break when cast as Dorothy in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of The Wizard of Oz. “It was the most spectacular show you can imagine, with flying, pyrotechnics, munchkins and dogs,” recalls Rabke. “It was just amazing!”
Just as this experience came to a close, the door to an entirely new realm of performing opened for Rabke, quite literally leading her right through the great Andrew Lloyd Webber’s front door. During Rabke’s audition for the role of the Narrator in the Broadway revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Lloyd Webber, the mastermind behind the musical, happened to walk into the theatre, only to be instantly impressed.
“Later that afternoon, he said, ‘I want to see that girl again,’” recounts Rabke. “By some miracle, ‘that girl’ was me! Before I knew it, I was headed with the whole creative team over to his apartment in Trump Tower, and had my callback audition right there in his living room! He gave me the part himself. Needless to say, it was certainly an unforgettable experience.”
Although Rabke considers this to be her largest career role thus far, her journey continued with one of her personal favorites—the role of Eponine in the classic Broadway musical Les Misérables. It was what she describes as her most nerve-wracking experience, given the fact that it was the first time she replaced another actress in an ongoing show, and did not rehearse it from the ground up with the entire cast. Regardless, she claims with certainty that she would not have traded it for anything.
“It’s really the role of a lifetime,” says Rabke. “There’s nothing better than dying onstage. The audience just loves you! I especially enjoyed singing ‘A Little Fall of Rain,’ and listening to all of the sniffling in the audience.” Beyond Broadway, Rabke has continued to bring audiences to tears with her heartfelt emotion and talent in performances at many regional theatres as well, playing timeless roles such as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, and Mabel in the romantic musical Mack and Mabel.
With strong ties to the local arts, Rabke has tirelessly to maintain their relevance in the Bergen County community, not only through her performances, but also through programming music classes in early childhood education.
“I have been involved with the BergenPAC for approximately nine years now. I helped to develop the ‘Kidz Cabaret Series,’ the facility’s Beyond Music Department, which provides instrumental music classes, and my favorite program—‘Music Speaks’—an early childhood education music class,” says Rabke, who also assisted in the opening of the BergenPAC’s new Performing Arts School, serving on the board of trustees and the executive committee, where she has co-chaired annual fundraising galas for many years.
The BergenPAC is additionally where she debuted her first ever cabaret show called No Place Like Home in 2014, after a ten-year break from performing to start a family and raise her son and daughter in Rockleigh, New Jersey. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind for Rabke, and she couldn’t be happier to have music fully back in her life. In recent years, she has performed to sold-out audiences in New York City, done concerts around the country with various symphony orchestras, has sung an original song co-written by Kathie Lee and David Friedman on The Today Show last summer, as well as performed shows with her favorite composer, Stephen Schwartz, the musical genius behind Wicked, Godspell, Pippin and other Broadway hits. She even created a second cabaret show, The Wizard and I, dedicated to his music.
Rabke is more excited than ever to return to the BergenPAC stage this October with her latest show dedicated to other inspiring artists. Music of the Knights, a show produced by her talented friend, Scott Coulter, will feature songs by three incredibly strong musicians and songwriters—Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“This production is so much fun, and the audience absolutely loves it because they know the words to every song. It is a crowd-pleaser, for sure. I am also extremely excited to be doing a show here in my own ‘backyard’ at BergenPAC,” says Rabke, adding that they also plan to incorporate local talent in the show in the form of a children’s choir or orchestra, and other special surprises.
“My favorite quote about music is, ‘That which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible, is music,’ said by Aldous Huxley,” states Rabke, as she discusses plans for the future and looks back upon her past. “The personal joy music brings is something I don’t have the words to describe. In every performance, past, present and future, I let the songs—the lyrical language of the heart that everyone can speak—do that for me.”
Megan Montemarano is a freelance writer and frequentcontributor to BC THE MAG.