Theater hopeful advances to national festival | ehextra.com
MARINETTE — Frank Sinatra drones over the speakers in detention, a sort of quasi-punishment, as a fellow student jokingly sings along. But it’s not the theater nerd. And he’s really good.
“You can sing,” you say out loud.
Startled, he tells you he was only jamming along.
“You gotta audition for the musical,” you say.
“Ehh, I don’t know,” the junior said.
“Hey, can we get out of detention if we go audition for this musical?” you ask the teacher.
“Yeah, go ahead,” they said.
As choir council president at Marinette High School, this kid did not know what he was doing — at all — but his voice sounded teachable. You give him a brief warmup. You push him into the empty room.
“I don’t know what this is, but I’m being forced to sing in front of you,” the junior says as he belts out the song.
“Ok, you have a pretty good voice,” the director says.
Flash forward seven years later, and 24-year-old Chase Grabowski — that junior singing Frank Sinatra — is one of eight finalists in the National Kennedy Center American Collegiate Theater Festival, making him the first acting finalist in the history of the University of Wisconsin — Green Bay.
The festival showcases 18,000 students annually from universities across the county. He self-taped his first audition and was one of the 18 selected from between 200 to 300 men and women to perform live at regionals for Musical Theater Intensive. One winner is selected from each region that advances to finals. Grabowski was nominated for two competitions at the festival, the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship and Musical Theater Intensive.
He will compete on April 19-23 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. for Region 3, which represents Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and western Ohio.
“I genuinely had no thought that I would win,” Grabowski said. “Not that I did badly, I thought I sang my song well, but I thought, ‘There’s no chance I’m going to win.’”
Grabowski performed “You Don’t Need to Love Me” from the musical “If/Then.”
His mom, Cindy Grabowski, said Chase has always been an entertainer growing up.
“This is not surprising to me,” Cindy said. “He has just always been the type that I thought would be something someday. It just makes my heart so happy.”
She said Chase always wanted to be an “actor/singer” when he grew up — she wrote it in his baby book. She attends every show she can and said her favorite was Footloose.
“I just always loved that movie,” Cindy said. “I know that’s not theater people’s favorite go-to. That was just fun, and he just nailed it.”
He also played Aladdin as a high school senior, where he met Brittany Welch, who runs the children’s theater at Theatre on the Bay. Welch is also the founder of Coastal Players, where Chase recently played Jon in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” in January.
“I have told Chase for the past couple of years or so that he could perform professionally,” said Welch, who is a singer and pianist who plays in various bands in the tri-cities area. “I’ve always told him that is not something I say to just anyone, and that I really meant it. He would kind of just brush it off.”
She said Chase may not have done the competition two or three years ago.
“With the life changes he’s gone through in the past couple of years, he’s grown a support system of people who encourage him to work for what he wants and made him aware of how achievable it is for him,” Welch said.
Chase took a three-year hiatus and switched his major from music education to business, graduating in 2020 and heading off to work at Schneider in Green Bay as an account manager. Having second thoughts, he confided in his boss, who encouraged him to return to school.
He graduated with a vocal performance degree in the fall of 2022, citing a conversation with Welch as a turning point. He’s only gotten better from there, said James Porras, the director of Menominee High School musicals and fellow performer in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” He’s known Chase for around the same time as Welch.
“He’s grown exponentially. It’s a joy to work next to him,” said Porras, who gets his acting chops from Northern Michigan University, where he spent more than four years.
Chase said he loves performing because he forgets about anything that’s going on in his life.
“I’m the most authentic version of me. I’m not worrying about anything else besides simply what I love to do,” he said.
Porras, who has spent his fair share of time auditioning, said Chase’s song choice for the competition was “beautifully in Chase’s register.” It also helped that he had familiarity with the song. Chase is a tenor, which means he can sing pretty high.
“When you go to one of these competitions, it’s a smart choice to do something you’ve performed in real life, or you have a profound connection to,” Porras said, speaking about Chase’s calculated choices as a performer. “It’s been just amazing to watch this guy grow from this really funny kid that had a really good singing voice to this fully grown man that is absolutely mastering his craft. I couldn’t be more proud to be a coworker and to be a close friend.”
Everything had changed for that junior in detention. After his impromptu audition, he got his first role as the chef in Cinderella. Since then, he’s performed in 15 to 20 musicals and plays, including hundreds of shows with bands, including John Kelly and the Fusion Express Orchestra and FBI (Funk Band Incorporated) and the Untouchable Horns. He even got to play Bobby in the musical “Company” last year, which he said is one of the best roles in musical theater.
Where will he go next?
“Ever since I’ve won this competition, I’ve had multiple theaters reach out,” he said. “I’m trying to find the best fit for me and see what happens from there, whether that’s Milwaukee, Door County or Boston.”
It’s a long way from an unassuming teenager with a tendency to misbehave in math class.
“I kind of sang to myself for years and years and years,” Grabowski said. “I never did it in front of people.”
And maybe it was a sort of a song to himself, convincing him that he was worth it all along.
“I’m perfectly content with wherever life takes me,” Chase said.
“And we’ll be there to support him,” his mom echoed.