Somewhere between celebrity and criminality are big lights and bright stars in the 1920’s-set Broadway musical, “Chicago.” The Bob Fosse, Fred Ebb and John Kander show brings the prohibition era of Chicago’s murderesses, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, to light. They dance and sing their way through the cell block, media headlines and courtroom trials to freedom—but, more importantly, to stardom.
The musical is based on the 1926 play written by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. Watkins covered high-profile homocides during the time, specifically of female criminals, including Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Each killed their husbands but were acquitted. A cabaret singer, Gaertner became the loose basis for Velma Kelly, while Annan was the model for Roxie Hart. In fact, much of Annan’s deposition from her trials became dialogue for Roxie in the show.
“The courtroom is the theatre, and people like courtoom drama,” Ray Kennedy says. Kennedy will direct the Opera House Theatre Company production, which opens Wednesday, August 5. It’s his second time directing the show for the company. “Some of the best theatre is based on true stories (“Gypsy,” “A Chorus Line”),” Kennedy continues.
He’s approaching the show this time around with more emphasis on Bob Fosse’s original intention of playing up the vaudeville style. Plus, many of his characters in “Chicago” are based on real vaudeville characters. He has cast John Perkinson as the ring leader, so to speak, the leading announcer of all the acts, or scenes, in the show. “Costumes and light tell the audience when we are fantasy/vaudeville and real time,” Kennedy explains. “The musical numbers are fantasy and part of ‘musical vaudeville.’”
Selina Harvey is in charge of costumes—fringe included—while Terry Collins has designed scenery as a one-unit set. It’s appropriate for Lorene Walsh’s orchestra, which will be scattered all across the stage.
As well, Kennedy has called the help of Jason Aycock as co-choreographer, and has utilized the help of ensemble cast members Blaine Mower and David Loudermilk to help refine moves as needed. “This has been the most collaborative choreographic process of a show I have ever been a part of,” Kennedy notes.
Perhaps one of the most exciting parts of directing “Chicago” has come with casting Broadway dancer Anne Hawthorne as Velma. “Her knowledge of the style is shaped by the very dancers that worked one-on-one with Fosse himself,” Kennedy excites.
“Fosse-style is so intricate and specific,” Hawthorne says. “It’s wonderful to get all the nuances—it is tough on the body though!”
Hawthorne grew up in Wilmington and studied ballet before transitioning into theatre and working with Opera House. She moved to New York to pursue Broadway, and worked Ben Vereen, Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth on the production of “Fosse,” a musical revue of all of Bob Fosse’s music.
“Ben Vereen was such a giving man, and he shared stories of Bob with us and why he did what he did on any given number,” Hawthorne tells. “Bob Fosse was like no other—an amazing dancer—but he used his weaknesses to create his style that will hopefully live on forever. It’s wonderful to be able to share the elements of style with this cast. They are all so wonderfully receptive.”
Kendra Goehring-Garrett will play Roxie Hart. “Watching Kendra do the ‘Roxie’ monologue [has been astounding,]” Kennedy says. “She brings such naked emotion.”
Filling out the cast is Jeff Phillips as Billy Flynn, Anthony David Lawson as Amos Hart (“Anthony breaks your heart in ‘Mr. Cellophane,’” Kennedy says), Michelle Braxton as Mama Morton, and Julianna Dickson as Mary Sunshine. Also based on Watkins’ reports of the inmates at the Cook County Jail comes the Merry Murderesses, featuring Heather Setzler, Samantha Mifsud, Stephanie Tucker, Brooklyne Williamson, and Caitlin Becka. “Watching six women create such interesting characters in ‘Cell Block Tango’ has been great,” Kennedy adds.
Hawthorne’s fave number is the finale, “Nowadays,” with Goehring-Garrett. Though she started out on the stage, Hawthorne had transitioned into film work (“Dark Hearts,” “Heart of the Country,” “Hollywood Wives”), so getting back into the throes of song and dance has been taxing. Yet, the fabulous choreography of the finale provides the sister act to top all sister acts.
“My character is right where she wanted to be—onstage,” Hawthorne tells. “Velma is a character that has made a way for herself and has seen a lot; she just wants to have the life she had before, but with better perks—which she thinks she deserves because of the sensationalized media. . . . As strong as she is, she still has a vulnerable side and that is always appealing to touch on with any character.”