Keeping In Step With Choreographer Kelly Todd

Brian Robin
 | Jan 10, 2022
Kelly Todd

Kelly Todd started choreographing plays and musicals when she was 17. And you could say she slid right into the deep end of the choreography pool.

“My first musical was Grease, the first one I got to do by myself from beginning to end,” she said. “I was 17 and the cast was 14-through-19-year-olds. I just remember it was hard to work with the boys, asking them to dance. They get self-conscious because it’s an extremely vulnerable act to get people to express themselves through their bodies and movement. Even for professional actors, I have to create a place for them to feel comfortable and take risks. That’s a big part of my job.”

Fast-forward 30 years later and Todd is a master at that “big part of her job”—the latest example being SCR’s production of Last Stop on Market Street, which runs Jan. 16-23 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

The high-energy, entertaining musical joyride is exactly the vehicle to show off Todd’s skills at getting people comfortable with movement. Did someone mention “vehicle?” The presence of a bus the size of a shuttle bus on stage creates a new vehicle—and challenge—for Todd’s talents.

“This challenge has turned into something really cool,” she said. “Working with the replica of a bus is challenging in that you’re confined and are trying to create movement. The one advantage I have is that it’s not a true bus. There are half walls and no ceiling, so there is some extra space for arms and heads to bob and weave. Also, sometimes when we go into a character’s mind, they hang from the bus and get out of the bus.”

Todd got her SCR start in 2012 working for Conservatory Director Hisa Takakuwa and the Summer Players cast on Seussical. Impressed with the professionalism of Takakuwa and her staff and crew, Todd took on more opportunities. She worked on SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences production of Ivy + Bean the Musical. That segued into such productions as The Light in the PiazzaOnce and Sweeney Todd. She recently choreographed SCR’s holiday tradition: A Christmas Carol.

Opportunities like that opened Todd’s eyes even larger to what she could do with the elements of movement. In Once, she was asked to choreograph actors moving with musical instruments in their hands. She had choreographed people playing drums and the blocks. But a tambourine solo?

“That was quite the experience and quite challenging, but also really exciting, she said. “The big number in there was one of my favorite numbers I ever choreographed.”

The teacher of movement moves around frequently these days. When she’s not choreographing a production at SCR or the Chance Theater, Todd runs the musical theatre department at Pepperdine, were she is a professor. And when she’s not teaching the art of movement, Todd is often moving toward another award for choreography.

StageSceneLA named her Southern California’s Choreographer of the Year in 2011 and 2012. Todd won Ovation Awards for Jerry Springer: The Opera (2011), Triassic Parq (2013) and Lysistrata Jones (2014). She won an LA Drama Critics Circle Special Award for Fight Choreography in West Side Story (2014).

In Last Stop on Market Street, Todd gets another stage to show off her versatility. Cheryl L. West’s adaptation of Matt de la Peña’s New York Times best-selling book and Lamont and Paris Ray Dozier’s music and lyrics gives Todd numerous vehicles inside the vehicle to display her craft.

“It’s a really fun show. It’s heartwarming and uplifting and just a joy to choreograph,” she said. “Especially with the awesomely talented actors, who are also great human beings. I love all the different styles of music: there’s a hip-hop number and a Latin number and a disco number. It’s been really a joy.”

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