Director and choreographer Rachel Rockwell dies but lives on in theater memories

 

Rachel Rockewell at a Goodman Theatre rehearsal for Brigadoon. (Liz Lauren photo)
Rachel Rockewell at a Goodman Theatre rehearsal for Brigadoon. (Liz Lauren photo)

When Chicago audiences enjoy a musical at Marriott Theatre, Drury Lane, Goodman or Paramount they may leave thinking that the theater knows how to produce a great show. But how often do audiences look at the program to see who directed or choreographed it?

This week, the “who” was brought to our attention with the obit of Ms. Rachel Rockwell, an extraordinary choreographer and director who died of ovarian cancer at age 49, May 28, 2018.

With Ms. Rockwell at the helm, shows seen several times before, such as “Mamma Mia!” and “Brigadoon”  appeared refreshed, renewed, and with more nuance under her direction when she did them respectively at Marriott Lincolnshire and Goodman Theatre.

“Rachel is a true Chicago theatre success story. The theatre community is heart-broken today for one of its own,” said Marriott Theatre Executive Producer Terry James in a statement. “Rachel traversed a highly successful theatrical path throughout Chicagoland’s major theatres and beyond,” said James.

He pointed out Ms. Rockwell’s close ties to the Marriott. “Lucky for us, Rachel called Marriott one of her homes for almost 25 years. Starting out as accomplished dancer and actress, then choreographer, director of our children’s shows and as director/choreographer of some of Marriott’s most successful productions from “Nunsense”to “42nd Street,” “A Chorus Line to “October Sky.”

 Mamma Mia! is directed by Rachel Rockwell. A multi Jeff award winner in the categories of Best Musical, Choreography and Director, Rockwell has a finely-tuned dancer’s instinct for how to pull together music and movement. (Photo by Justin Barbin)
Mamma Mia! is directed by Rachel Rockwell. A multi Jeff award winner in the categories of Best Musical, Choreography and Director, Rockwell has a finely-tuned dancer’s instinct for how to pull together music and movement. (Photo by Justin Barbin)

James was aware of Ms. Rockwell’s cancer battle. “While directing last season’s “Mamma Mia!” Rachel was taking chemo treatments on her days off and never missed a day. Old school!” he said. “The possibilities were just blossoming. She possessed all the qualities needed other than the time to realize what was definitely ahead for her.”

He felt deeply about Ms. Rockwell’s death and contributions. “Personally, this is a heartfelt loss of a decades old friendship. A loss of one of the greats of Chicago theatre,”  said James.

“Our love and prayers go out to Rachel’s family, especially mother Gloria, husband Garth and son Jake,” he said.

Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls also weighed in on the death of Rachel Rockwell.

“The world has lost a great artist who brought love and joy, and a blazingly original vision to every work she touched,” said Falls in a statement for Chicago Theater and Arts.

Cast of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon at Goodman Theatre (2014).  (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Cast of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon at Goodman Theatre (2014). (Photo by Liz Lauren)

“Rachel Rockwell made it look so effortless. She directed the great musicals of the American canon—including “Brigadoon,” which was among the most successful productions in Goodman history—and one can only imagine what remarkable work she would have created in the decades to come,” said Falls.

He added, “My deepest condolences to her beloved family, and the many friends and colleagues who adored her.”

Ms Rockwell also did shows for Chicago Shakespeare, Paramount in Aurora and several productions for Oakbrook’s Drury Lane Theatre.

Born Natalie Rachel Heyde in Columbia, Missouri, then moving to Indiana, she graduated from Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, then obtained a BFA in Theater Performance from the University of Evansville.

Ms. Rockwell started out as dancer then added acting roles. She was in the Broadway and National Tour productions of “Mamma Mia!”

She reportedly changed her last name to Rockwell when urged by her father, Gary Heyde, to find a name that worked well with her stage career.

Ms. Rockwell is survived by husband Garth Helm, son Jake, her father, mother Glory Kissel Heyde and brother Jeremy Spencer. A memorial service is planned for July 9, 2018 at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook.

Jodie Jacobs

 

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