In closing out their 90th season in style, the Little Theater of Norfolk has turned back the clocks to when it all began, the Roaring 20’s, with a production of the mega-hit Broadway musical Chicago.
Producing a musical at the community theater level is always a challenge and producing such a well-known show as Chicago only raises the level of challenge to the company, and the expectations from the audience. This production has risen to that challenge and easily met those expectations.
The original Broadway production of Chicago opened in 1975 and ran for over 900 performances. Bob Fosse choreographed the original production, and his style is strongly identified with the show. The revival of Chicago was launched on Broadway in 1996 and is still running to this day, holding the record for the longest running revival, and is second only to The Phantom of the Opera for the longest running American musical in Broadway history at well over 8,000 performances. The revival won six Tony awards and in 2002; a film version of the musical won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, the musical is based on a 1926 play of the same name by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about actual criminals and crimes she reported on. In this Kander and Ebb musical, Chorine Roxie Hart murders her faithless lover and convinces her hapless husband Amos to take the rap…until he finds out he’s been duped and turns on Roxie. Convicted and sent to death row, Roxie and celebrity murderess Velma Kelly vie for the attention of high-profile lawyer Billy Flynn, the spotlight, and the headlines, ultimately joining forces in search of fame, fortune and acquittal.
Although she has never directed a musical until now, Jillian Sweetland did what a smart director does: assemble a strong production team, get a talent-rich cast and orchestra, then apply the KISS concept (in this case it would mean Keep It Simple Sweetland) to bring the popular musical successfully to life. How did she apply this KISS principle? She set the vision of simplicity, let the story and the score carry the load, and then let the artists (both on stage and behind the scenes) do their work.
Sweetland kept the set, sound and lighting design minimal. Each is effective, enhancing the story and supporting the performers without being intrusive. Having the orchestra onstage and visible gives the set a vaudeville-nightclub-type feel. Katherine Given contributes to this success with her costume design. Black lingerie, fishnet stockings, leather and lace all around. Sexy, leaning towards risqué, but appropriate.
Music Director Shawna Lawhorn has done an outstanding job in shaping the musical aspects of this show. This cast sings with the energy and confidence that only comes from knowing the music. Tight harmonies, melded balance. A live orchestra in community theater musical productions is almost unheard of, but Ms. Lawhorn has put together a group of musicians more than capable to handle this energetic score with rhythmic precision and melodic flexibility. Conductor and pianist Carson Bradford adequately manages to keep the orchestra from overpowering the singers… most of the time. I think it is time for Board of Directors to purchase a wireless microphone system so as not lose voices when facing upstage or in the lower registers, especially in the female voices, which does happen at times here.
Becca Schatti does an excellent job infusing the Fosse-style into her choreography. She does not shy away from challenging the varying dance experience of this cast, and they responded. I was disappointed that “Tap Dance” didn’t have the dancers in actual tap shoes, nor was the dance more difficult. Considering the dance sequences later in the show, I have no doubt they could have handled a more challenging dance sequence here. Also, considering the vaudeville nature of this show, tap dancing could have been used more throughout. HOWEVER, you will not be let down by the choreography Ms. Schatti has developed, nor the near effortless way the cast performs it. Fosse is smiling.
The talent-rich pool of the cast I mentioned earlier is led by Lauren Henry (Roxie) and Gabrielle Jurscaga (Velma). Each bring their own unique brand of vulnerability, arrogance and sexiness to their characters. Both have strong singing voices and handle their dancing with confident ease. Both give solid performances with standout moments for Henry in “We Both Reached for the Gun” and Jurscaga in “I Can’t Do It Alone.”
Working between those divas is the voluptuous and scheming Mama Morton, played by Kathryn Davis, a newcomer to the local theater scene, and a powerful voice with a powerful presence. I think we are going to see a lot more from her.
While this is a female-heavy cast, the men of Chicago can, and do, hold their own. Michael Singleton’s rich baritone voice just adds to his charm as the slick, high-profile lawyer Billy Flynn. Although you might “walk right by” Roxie’s husband Amos, you will notice how Garney Johnson so deftly plays this timid, simpleton role. It is LOL amusing when Amos asks the orchestra for his “exit music” at the end of the show… sorry, no spoiler here.
You do not often get to hear about the Ensemble of a show: that group of people that play a plethora of characters throughout the show, usually must know A LOT of music and choreography AND, let us not forget are usually used to help make scene changes. Well, I am going to mention them. They are the glue to this show. They are rarely off stage and they help carry the story. To use Navy jargon, BZ!
I think you get the idea that I enjoyed the show. I did. I will say it was a little slow out of the gate and some of the chemistry between characters seemed lacking at first, but only at first. Will you enjoy it? Only seeing it will answer that question. My recommendation is for you to go and find out the answer. (I think you will).
Chicago runs through June 11 at the Little Theatre of Norfolk. Fri & Sat 8:00pm, Sun 2:30. Tix $18 regular, Student/Seniors/Military $15, 17 and under $9. Group rates also available. Call (757) 627-8551 or click here for reservations. If you miss it you’ll be sorry, and you’ll have had it comin’.