A video chat audition brought former Forest Parker Dana Robins to the “Edge of Glory.” Robins was laid off of her administrative assistant job last fall, a job she used to pay the bills while waiting for her big break in her true calling: performing music on electronic keyboard.
Then she learned of a Lady Gaga tribute show, “Bad Romance,” through friend Roxie Wagner, an already-booked backup singer for the show. The show follows a fictional story line to weave together Gaga’s hits, and the audience is encouraged to sing and dance along. “Bad Romance” was to premiere at Chicago’s Copernicus Theater and then take to the road on the east and west coasts, starting with three performances in New York this summer.
Robins auditioned for producer and director Nick Vitogiannes over FaceTime on her iPhone after teaching herself to play a Lady Gaga song in 15 minutes. She is a Gaga fan, after all.
“She’s outrageous and eccentric, and I love it,” said Robins.
She got the part.
“That’s it. That’s what I want,” Vitogiannes said to himself after Robins’ rendition of “You and I,” from Gaga’s latest album Born This Way.
March 16 was the first performance of “Bad Romance.” With well-wishers in the crowd, the Copernicus lobby sparked with the flashes of wanna-be “paparazzi.”
As the lights went black, dense fog inundated the aisles up to the stage. Upbeat electronic music thumped through every speaker. According to the Copernicus box office, some 600 audience members nearly filled the lower level of the venue. Clapping and cheering in loud anticipation, they seemed uncertain of what a Lady Gaga concert sans Lady Gaga would entail. The musical tribute began with black-and-white imagery flashing on a screen onstage, not unlike the beginning of the pop singer’s recent tour, “The Monster Ball.”
The first few synthesized chords of “Dance in the Dark” were struck on an electronic keyboard by Robins, dressed in a black leather tube dress, red tights, and an updo that required a lot of hair spray to stick.
Robins is one of seven members of the live band who plays renditions of Gaga’s two albums for “Bad Romance.” Lead vocals are performed by Charissa Hope. Other performers include Wagner and Caitlin Simone singing backup vocals, drummer Christina Vitogiannes, bassist Mark Medina, and Nick Vitogiannes on guitar. The show is accompanied by dancers Emily Malkowski, Joey Schuman, Ian Sokoloski, Kelly Kakaley, Anthony Raimondi and Nicole Miceli.
During the show, Robins kept the energy high when songs transitioned, vigorously clapping her hands above her head, inviting Little Monsters of all ages to follow suit.
This was not Robins’ first on-stage performance by a long shot. The 27-year-old made her debut at the Circle Inn, singing and playing the keyboard solo, with her mother in the audience. She was 12.
“It was just me and my Yamaha keyboard. I was shaking like a leaf on a tree,” Robins said. “[The audience] knew me because I lived in Forest Park my whole life, but they didn’t know what to expect. People came up to me afterward and said, ‘That voice came out of you?’ I was a little quiet growing up.”
You might say she was “Born This Way.”Lori Robins taught her daughter her first song on the piano at age 4: “Chopsticks.”
Dana took it from there.
“I was like, ‘All right, woman, move over! I got this,'” she said.
And the rest was history.
“I taught Dana how to play by ear and she just took off from that point,” Lori Robins said. The first time she heard her daughter playing a song she wrote herself was a profound moment.
“That’s when I cried,” she said.
Robins continued to play at bars and restaurants throughout Forest Park including Circle Inn and Doc Ryan’s while attending Forest Park Middle School, and into her teens while she was home schooled for high school.
Christmas pageants and talent shows also sharpened Robins’ musical skills growing up, and she learned how to read music playing the clarinet in the Forest Park Middle School band.
“Growing up in Forest Park, there were always opportunities for music,” she said. She no longer lives in town.
While earning a music business degree from Columbia College, Robins spent a semester in Los Angeles meeting music production and management industry professionals, while learning how to produce songs. But when she graduated in spring 2008, finances weren’t quite where they needed to be for Robins to pursue her career there.
So Robins and her younger brother made music themselves – with not much more than a desktop PC and a special keyboard to plug it into. They soon applied their joint musical skills to form a cover band with a couple friends that would eventually become known as Hookah Breath, named for their unique practice of fixing a hookah mouthpiece to a microphone on stage. Audience members were encouraged to come on stage and “smoke” the hookah during the performance.
Hookah Breath performed throughout various western Chicago suburbs, including at Forest Park’s own Murphy’s. The band’s last performance was two years ago this week at Murphy’s, in honor of one member’s relocation to California.
Vitogiannes plans to bring the Bad Romance production to cities along the west and east coasts, but currently has just three venues in the New York area tentatively booked for summer.
While Robins just accepted a full time job with Clear Channel, she’s devoted to the show should it continue.But she says she wouldn’t have been able to commit to the show initially if it weren’t for losing her previous job.
“I wouldn’t have been able to practice as much as I needed to,” she said. “It’s like it happened for a reason.”