When Christina Wells steps onto the Hobby Center stage as Matron "Mama" Morton in the 25th Anniversary Tour of Chicago, she knows she's coming full circle.
Wells takes on the famed role in the highly anticipated Chicago run produced by Theatre Under the Stars, which runs January 31 through February 12 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Houston — and national —audiences fell in love with her during her breakout, Season 13 of NBC's America's Got Talent.
"The city of Houston showed up for me," she tells CultureMap, explaining the hometown love she felt in her appearance on the talent show. "I feel such joy in returning here. You know, performing is a two-way street, and I feel like, we did it!"
Wells' gratitude for her home and her career runs deep. The H-Town native is a trained registered nurse, and didn't step into performing full time until after her stint on the hit show. By that point, she was in her 40s, with two grown children.
All the stars seemed to align, pointing her in a brand-new direction.
"I was always that nurse who would whip open the curtain on a patient before surgery and say, hey!" Her voice notches up, evoking an emcee warming up the crowd. "So, I always brought that kind of entertaining aspect to it."
Following the AGT appearance, she secured and agent and began the path to full-time acting. The single mother (her sons are now 27 and 21, and she has a toddler grandson) calls it her "second adulthood."
Chicago is her first national tour, and every day is adventure for Wells, being in a new city every week — sometimes multiple times a week — and learning who she is in this new phase of her life.
"It's just surreal," she says about having the tour stop in Houston. "I started in community theater and I looked up to TUTS. That was the goal."
A goal she met in 2021, with a dream role of Ursula the sea witch in Disney's The Little Mermaid. Now, she's back on the Hobby Center stage in another iconic role in an another iconic musical.
Matron "Mama" Morton is in charge of the women's ward of the Cook County Jail, where she oversees the musical's accused murderers, taking the occasional bribe in exchange for favors and preferential treatment Her big number, "When You're Good to Mama" is often a showstopper, sung by some of show business' biggest names. Think Patti LaBelle, Lilias White, Jennifer Holliday, and Queen Latifah.
That might nbe intimidating to some. Not to Wells.
"I try not to think of stepping into other people's shoes," she says. "I want to myself to this. I want to be authentic in it. [Mama's] a big woman, and she loves these girls. She protects them. But she's tough. She gets what she wants."
The musical, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, opened to mixed reviews on Broadway in 1975. But its 1996 revival fared better. That iteration of the show is still running on Broadway.
And the 2002 movie musical was a hit, starring Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, and Latifah. It explores the idea of celebrity criminals and a corrupt justice system, blending those dark themes with some of Broadway's most instantly recognizable tunes such as "All That Jazz," "Razzle Dazzle," and "Nowadays."
Being part of the tour has taught Wells a lot, both about the business of performing and about her self. She prioritizes singing over everything else, she says. And she's tapped into her own desire for authenticity in her roles to amp up her acting. She credits the show's creative team, especially the show's director and assistant choreographer, in helping her to grow in her craft an confidence.
That confidence is something she wants to share.
"Opportunity and talent don't just belong to the young," she says. "Everyone has value."
That's the message she shares with others when she offers workshops and talks, where she not only offers her own journey as an example, but encourages others to tap into theirs.
"I'm a cheerleader," she explains. "I have one friend who teases me, 'Don't listen to her; she'll have you going back to college and leaving your terrible boyfriend.'" Wells laughs. "But I say, stand in my confidence for a little while. If I'm going to have a platform in this life, I'm going to tell you to believe in yourself."
Chicago runsJanuary 31 through February 12 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts (800 Bagby St.). For tickets, showtimes, and more information, visit TUTS online.