CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: SUPER TROUPERS

Showbiz couples learn to cope when parts keep them apart-and bring them back together again

Michael and Angela Ingersoll. Bank of America Theatre.

John Cudia and Kathy Voytko celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary together on a recent Thursday night. Both were in the arms of another person. Such is the life for married actors who are in separate shows. "We both celebrated it the Monday before," Voytko says. "Sometimes, you have to fudge the actual date." Voytko is currently playing the role of Clara in Stephen Sondheim's chamber musical Passion, which finishes its run today at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Cudia is portraying the title character in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

Cudia and Voytko first met while they were respectively understudying the roles of Raoul and Christine in a production of The Phantom of the Opera. While the opulent and romantic hit music from Andrew Lloyd Webber has no doubt brought many a couple together, Cudia and Voytko say the show wasn't the source of the romance, but rather just the circumstance behind their meeting. "The show is the show," Cudia says. "We could have been cast in a terrible tragedy and if we had been put together in the same room we would have hit it off."

"We were both in rehearsals together for our roles and both kept doing pratfalls to crack the other person up," Voytko adds. "It was completely contrary to how our characters were supposed to behave and we both recognized some kindred silliness in each other."

Unlike the Phantom character he plays, Cudia resisted the urge to drop a chandelier on the competition and instead behaved as a perfect gentleman. "It was obvious to me that we were hitting it off, but she was involved and I didn't want to get in the way." The pair dated for four years before their marriage. For most of their married life Voytko and Cudia have found themselves separated due to various touring productions. "The one good thing I will say is that when you do finally see each other it definitely makes seeing each more exciting," Cudia says.

Now that they're in the same city for a couple of months, Voytko says she can't wait to do the things most couples take for granted. "Just to be able to walk the dog together is going to be great," Voytko says. "Or go out to dinner," Cudia adds. "You know, the normal things."

Cudia is starring opposite Sara Jean Ford in the Webber musical. As the Phantom is teacher to Christine, Ford also could learn a thing or two about actors and relationships from Cudio. The actress is dating Drew Gehling, who plays Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys. The pair met at Carnegie Mellon University. Ford counts herself lucky for falling for Gehling. "There were seven students in the musical theater class and Drew was the only straight boy," she says, laughing.

Like her Phantom co-star, Ford has spent much time apart from her boyfriend. After graduating, he took a job as Prince Charming at Disneyland in California while she joined the original Chicago company of Wicked.

"Though it was kind of cool to tell people I was dating Prince Charming, the distance got to be a bit much," Ford says. Ford and Gehling's system is never spending more that four weeks apart. "We're fortunate that in our business we both have Mondays off," Gehling says. "At the moment, neither of our shows have Sunday night performances, either. So, we're able to fly out on Sunday night and stay with each other until Tuesday morning." "Sometimes, we don't even wait four weeks," Ford adds."Sometimes it's every other week. We're lame like that," Gehling says. Ford figures that most of her salary from Wicked was spent on flying out to see Gehling on tour in Jersey Boys.

"People can't believe that I would fly out to see him just for one day," Ford says. "To me, it's worth it." In addition to being able to spend more time with each other, Ford and Gehling plan on seeing more family and friends, too. "We're officially known to our family and friends as a 'two-fer,'" Ford says. "It's only in Chicago where you can see both Drew and I in our shows."

"When you date or marry another actor, there is an inherent conflict involved," says Michael Ingersoll, currently seen as Nick Massi in the Chicago production of Jersey Boys opposite Gehling. Ingersoll also is married, to actress Angela Ingersoll. "You want your partner to succeed at everything they do, but you know that success will often entail them leaving you for periods of time."

Like Cudia and Voytko, the Ingersolls met on the stage; they were asked to prepare the marriage proposal scene from The Importance of Being Earnest for a regional theater. It wasn't long before they were rehearsing their own marriage proposal scene. When Michael took on the role of Massi in the national tour of Jersey Boys, it was the first time the couple were apart for a length of time.

"We resisted living apart until we had to," Michael Ingersoll says. "It was such a significant job for me, I couldn't pass it up."

"Chicago was the first place that felt like home to both of us, so it wasn't a stretch for me to say yes to staying here while he went on the road," adds Angela Ingersoll, who was nominated for a Jefferson Award for her role as Martha in Porchlight Music Theatre's 2006 production of The Secret Garden. This past spring, she originated the role of Riley in Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's hit children's show How Can You Run With a Shell on Your Back?. Video gamers will soon be hearing a lot more of her. She recently completed voiceover work for the much-anticipated video game Crysis from Electronic Arts. And, beginning Dec. 12, she will be appearing in the Apple Tree Theatre's production of the fringe musical favorite The Mistress Cycle as the infamous author Anais Nin.

Dating someone in the same profession does have its perks. "Being on the road, you might hit springtime and springtime allergies six months in a row," Voytko says. "When I'm not talkative, he knows it's because I'm trying to save my voice." "There are times when auditions don't go the way you want, and having a spouse who's an actor gives you a support system," Cudia says.

The Ingersolls say it helps to look at both careers jointly. "It isn't a competition. Now that Michael's life is more normal thanks to the long run, I can take more career risks," Angela Ingersoll says. "And I'm here to support her," Michael Ingersoll adds.

Each of the couples has been able to keep their relationships intact in less than perfect circumstances by keeping a line of communication open. "When you're talking to an answering machine, you soon start to feel like you're in a relationship with a machine," Voytko says. "Make sure to say good morning and good night to each other.""You have to trust that the other is behaving as if you are there standing next to them," Cudia says.

The Ingersolls put technology to work for them. "Laptops and Webcams are wonderful," Angela Ingersoll says. "We made it a point to always make and eat dinner with each other even when we were in different cities." "We also saved our days off and would come see the other person whenever we could," Michael Ingersoll adds. "But the iChat dinners gave us a sense of normalcy in between those visits."

Gehling and Ford also plan to work together on a cabaret show they hope to perform while here. "Being in Chicago will give us a chance to be normal," Gehling says. "You're glad to have the experience of a national tour," adds Ford. "But I'm more glad to have a smack of reality in the middle of it."

As for what the future holds for the couples, Cudia and Voytko just might end up taking a cue from the Ingersolls. "Kathy has spent three years working in local theaters and we both adore the Chicago theater community," Cudia says. "We still have a home in New Jersey," Voytko adds. "Everything is just a little friendlier here and we may stick around for a little while longer."

Gehling says he and Ford are considering setting up house in Chicago, too. "In New York, you have to leave town to work," Gehling says. "But in Chicago, you can actually make a living as an actor and still have a family and be a real person." "In the very least," adds Ford, "it's nice to play pretend for the few months we're both living here."

Cover Photo: Chicago Sun-Times