Manhattanite makes Broadway debut in ‘A Christmas Story’

By Bryan Richardson

Sometimes, a kid from a small city can have her big-city dreams come true.

Charissa Bertels, who grew up in Manhattan, is making her Broadway debut as a part of the ensemble in the musical “A Christmas Story,” which opened Nov. 19.

Bertels, the daughter of James and Kathleen Bertels, said people think it’s cool when she tells them her hometown’s nickname is “The Little Apple.”

“I think it’s exciting to come from the Little Apple to the Big Apple,” she said.

Bertels said opening night was a wonderful experience, from being a part of the Broadway traditions to all the flowers and gifts in the dressing room. “It looked like Christmas morning,” she said. “I was so shocked. I couldn’t see my dressing station because of everything.”

Bertels said the audience has been really receptive to a story they know well from watching the movie on TV during the holidays. “It’s been really fun,” she said. “The audience really loves it, so that’s been a joy. I’m having a really good time.”

Bertels described it as “surreal” working so hard to arrive at this moment and having her family with her for the opening. She said she particularly enjoys the experience of leaving the theater doors.

“You see all these other Broadway shows and you see Times Square,” she said. “You just feel like you made it.”

The road toward Broadway for Bertels started in Mr. Gibson’s fifth-grade classroom at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary. Bertels was cast as the title role in the school production of “The Hobbit,” which she said sparked her interest in acting.

Mr. Gibson suggested getting involved in the parks and recreation summer acting program, which she did until she graduated from Manhattan High in 1998. During her time at MHS, she participated in theater and was the president of the school’s Thespian Club.

Bertels said she didn’t think about making acting into a career until she started considering her college plans. “I thought, ‘Well this is what I love doing more than anything in the world, so maybe I should get a degree and pursue this,’” she said.

After graduating from K-State in 2003 with a degree in vocal performance with a minor in theater, Bertels moved to Seattle with her husband, James Pingenot.

Bertels said she loved Seattle, but a desire to try to make it on Broadway made her to want to move to New York. “I just got to a point where I said, ‘I’m ready, and I can do this. Now is the time to go,’” she said.

Bertels’s husband supported the move, and they arrived in New York in 2009. She said she couldn’t ask for a better husband as he supports her dreams.

“Pursuing acting is very difficult,” she said. “It’s a hard life and a hard schedule.”

After moving to New York, Bertels said she attended acting workshops while going to three to five auditions a day. For two years, she experienced plenty of rejection while trying to get her face recognized by the casting directors.

“The biggest thing about pursuing acting is the rejection,” she said. “The thing about going to three to five auditions a day is you’re getting rejected three to five times a day.”

Bertels also had to be wake up at 6 a.m. to get to auditions, which she said was a struggle at times.

“I’d always ask myself, “Would I rather work at McDonald’s?’” she said. “If the answer was yes, I could go back to sleep. It wasn’t, so I’d get up to get ready.”

Bertels said things finally started turning around this year when she performed in the ensemble for in the musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” which was an off-Broadway show in May. The cast recorded a studio performance that was released in September.

She had performed in various productions around the city, but she considered this to be her big break since it led to her current role. “Blondes” director and Tony Award-winner John Rando is also the director of “A Christmas Story.”

Bertels said she enjoys the storytelling aspect of performing the most. “It’s exciting to be able to make people laugh, cry, feel something and take a journey,” she said.

After getting a taste of Broadway, Bertels said the goal now is to gain a lead role in a Broadway performance. “You can’t beat the applause,” she said. “It feels awesome.”

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