Lights, Camera, “Chicago!”: An Inside Look at Niles West Theatre’s “Chicago”

By Mara Shapiro

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Those who frequent Niles West Theatre productions know what the Black Box looks like when a performance is being held: lights, various props such as tables and chairs, and tons of different sets. However, Friday, April 20 is a whole different scene. The floor is bare, the actors are wearing workout gear, and there are four huge mirror panels at the center of the room. Why? It’s a dance training day for the annual spring musical: “Chicago.”

“Chicago” is the tale of 1920s Chicago in which  an ambitious chorus girl named Roxie Hart, played by senior Rachel Flink, murders her lover Fred Casely (senior Jason Magel) and is then sent to jail, all the while trying to regain her fame. While in jail she meets former vaudeville star Velma Kelly (senior Julia Zasso) who murdered her husband and sister because she caught the two of them in bed together. The women decide to use/compete with one another in order to rise back to the top.

DANCE TRAINING DAY

The dance that the cast is planning on addressing in this session is “Razzle Dazzle,” when Roxie’s lawyer, Billy Flynn (senior Steven Czajkowski), prepares her for her upcoming trial. The dance is a toughy. All the girls have to wear heels, for one. There are acrobatics and people-lifting. All the while the actors must sing. Senior Mary Vo, who is part of the ensemble, takes on the role of choreographer and English teacher Patti-Anne Davis’ assistant. Davis tells her performers before they prepare to dance that they should “allow [themselves] to make mistakes, but don’t allow [themselves] to freak out.”

There were definitely struggles during the dance. More than a few girls fell down, though how can you blame them with those shoes. There was mindless chit-chat in the background, and Vo had to raise her voice a few times, to which Davis repeatedly said, “there are too many cooks in the kitchen!”

Though the grueling dances can be taxing, the actors enjoy the hard work. Sophomore Cameron Broderick, who plays Aaron, loves his dance-heavy role.

“I enjoy dancing. I only get to do it once or twice[during a production.] [There are] new people and new experiences,” he says.

Vo understands that with choreography comes complications.

“No dance is ever easy; it’s how the actors execute it,” she says.

“Razzle Dazzle” continues, with the music playing from a boombox in the background. Davis continues with her “cooks” catchphrase and tells her cast that they can do better. She even goes as far as to tell them to “leave their egos at the door” and stop focusing on their reflections in the mirror.

Junior Max Greene, who is part of the ensemble, accredits “Razzle Dazzle” as being the hardest dance because of its circus choreography. Circus choreography is the perfect term. Sophomore Carly Tennes has to do a front walkover, jump split, and is carried in the air mid split in just this dance alone.

Tennes shows me how her heels have traction at the bottom in order to allow her to stick her tricks more easily, but she still gets nervous.

“I’ve been doing [gymnastics] for a long time. [Heels] make things difficult. It is still scary,” she says.

The crew continue to work on “Razzle Dazzle” until it is time for “All That Jazz.”  The rest of the session is full of rough sketches of various scenes, but the main focus was “Razzle Dazzle.”

Davis feels that the hardest part of teaching the dance aspects of “Chicago” would be the attention needed to focus.

“The hardest part is getting everyone on the same page…[but]the flash[is] priceless. We love our city,Chicago, and [the musical] is packed with good songs and dances,” she says.

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REHEARSAL: LESS THAN A WEEK TO SHOWTIME

Flash forward to a week later, Friday, April 27. No longer will the rehearsals take place in the Black Box. It is now time to roll up the sleeves in the Robert L. Johnson Auditorium, complete with lights, a full-blown stage, and an orchestra pit.

Senior Zachary Tarnoff, who is the master electrician, does see some difficulties in the way the lighting needs to be handled for the show.

“It’s not as big of a set and we have a lot of new props and a new crew. But it’s been fun teaching others what I’ve been learning since freshman year,” Tarnoff says.

Before any acting takes place, theatre director Andrew Sinclair sits down his cast and tells them that they must focus. Then everyone stretches as they prepare to perform the first scene of the day, “Roxie.” Flink cooly struts around in a white shirt and black leggings as she belts out how soon everyone will know her name.  Rehearsal is still showing faults, such as missed cues or forgotten lines. Or even lack of pep.

Sinclair makes his cast repeatedly extol “Hallelujah” as they practice Roxie’s trial. He says that the exuberance separates “[Niles West Theatre] from high school theatre.” Basically, most scenes are performed on this day alone. Songs such as “My Baby and Me” and “Class” reverberate around the room. Zasso flits around as the energetic Kelly, nailing “I Can’t Do It Alone,” where Velma tries to convince Roxie to join her act by portraying two people at once. Her tap dancing was phenomenal.  A particularly funny scene that viewers can look forward to is when a fruit heiress is arrested for murdering her cheating boyfriend. Let’s just say that biting is involved.

Finally, the last scene is performed. I won’t give away what happens, but while the actors are dancing Davis joins along on the floor, an homage to Amy Poehler in “Mean Girls.” There is no other way to describe how she mimics the dance down to a T. The end of rehearsal comes with Sinclair’s asking of his cast about what they need to work on. The unanimous answer is “focus.”

If you can believe it, rehearsal started at 3:45 and ended at 6:45. At least five different scenes were performed in this timespan. There was some chiding from Sinclair such as “You gotta hustle your butt!” and even a few facepalms. But that’s show business.  Not every move was perfected, and live shows need to be pretty darn close to that. Sinclair warned that “if [you all] are happy with [sloppiness], then that’s what we’ll show.”

“[Rehearsals started] Thursday, March 15.  To me, that is pretty amazing when you consider that the entire show has been put together in six weeks!  In fact, when adding up rehearsal days, the entire production has been put together in only 33 rehearsals.  I am so proud of the students and staff members for their hard work in making that happen,” Sinclair says.

There was considerable improvement from the week before. It was extremely exciting to view the progression that the actors all had to go through. They elucidated their lines more, sang with more projection, and kept in time to the music. The pit was with the actors every step of the way.

 

THE PIT

Junior Merrill Miller, who plays the banjo and ukulele, says that the pit practices every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday while the actors danced.

“There [weren’t] many distractions. [My favorite song] is ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’ because it’s a fun banjo song.”

A monitor was projected at the back of the room and was from the perspective of pit director and band director William Koch.

“The pit orchestra is up on stageinstead of in the pit,” Koch says.  “This presents a unique situation for mebecause my back is to the performers on stage, the performers areusually in front of me on the stage. Because the action is behind me,I have to watch a small tv monitor in order to follow the performer sand the performers need to watch me on  a screen in the balcony inorder to get their cues.”

Koch also finds some songs more difficult than others.

“The most difficult song for the pit orchestra to play is the ‘Honey Rag,'” he said. “It is by far the most technical piece of music in the book. The most difficult song to coordinate with the vocalists is “Roxie”because of the vamps.  This show is extremely difficult to conduct almost every song either starts with a vamp or has vamps somewhere in it. A vamp is a short piece of music that repeats until the actor finishes their dialogue.”

 

PROPS & COSTUMES

There are other components that come with the musical, such as props, costumes, and sound.

Sophomore and props mistress Lila Gilbert gives some insight into her research.

“The props need to be period [pieces] and I had to research the settings to see what things looked like,” Gilbert says.

She particularly discusses how she had to research the Hart’s apartment and find out where rooms and furniture would be located. She describes her research as “lots of fun.”

Senior Amy Sands is in charge of sound and also helps out with costumes.

“[The costumes] are really fun, lots of flapper dresses. [They were] really fun[articles] to make. [The main issue with sound] is getting the mics pushed under the wigs and into the proper places,” Sands says.

 

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ACTING

And, of course, what’s a production without its characters? Flink, Zasso, Czajkowski, and senior Aaron Ruderman (Amos Hart, Roxie’s husband) discuss their preparations and characters.

“[I’ve been practicing] at home. I love “All That Jazz.” It’s a great musical; it’s funny. We’ve all been focused on the show. It’s been a wild ride,” Zasso says.

“[Roxie] is my first lead role. It’s a different feeling. I’ve been practicing my lines in class. I know I shouldn’t, but I am. I love “My Baby and Me,'” Flink says.

“It’s really fun to play someone who is really smart and who always gets his way…There wasn’t as much dancing in “Xanadu.” I’ve been going over the CD and singing and dancing at home,” Czajkowski says.

“It’s been difficult to relate to [Amos] because his character’s wife cheated and lied. It’s difficult to relate because I’m 17 and not married,” Ruderman says.

Though Ruderman does confess that the show comes with its struggles, Sinclair understands.

“It is always a challenge to make something look so easy when the material is really difficult,” he says. “This show has over 10 major dance numbers and requires young performers and musicians to tackle music/movement that can be a challenge for professional actors.  It always amazes me how difficult musicals can be and how our students are always up for the challenge.”

Sinclair says he chose “Chicago” because he liked the triple threat of singing, dancing, and acting.

“I have always loved this musical.  In fact, it was the first show I ever saw on Broadway…  We are presenting this as a “play within a play” and the cast is a group of vaudeville performers who are coming into the auditorium to perform this show for the audience.  It has been fun to teach the actors a bit about vaudeville,” Sinclair says.

One thing both he and the actors can agree upon is that students should come and see “Chicago.”

“It’s the most fun show I’ve ever been in. ‘Chicago’ is a great production and everyone should come and see it,” Tennes says.

“It’s a good time to come and support people who have supported you in the past,” Flink says.

“We’ve worked really hard for five weeks. Our school has a good reputation [when it comes to theatre]. [It would be disappointing] because we have worked so hard to not have people see it,” Czajkowski says.

“It’s the spring musical. I think it should become an event that every student attends.  Audiences will be amazed at the great acting, the excellent singing and dancing and the amazing sets, costumes and lights.  Plus, this show has one of the best orchestras I have heard!” Sinclair says.

“Chicago” will be put on in the Robert L. Johnson Auditorium Thursday, May 3 through Sunday, May 5. A free community performance will be held Thursday at 10 a.m.  A show will then be performed later that night at 7:30 p.m.  The Friday and Saturday shows will be both be at 7:30. Tickets for adults costs $10, and the price for students is $7.