Chicago draws raves at preview

June 24, 2011

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

In the opening number of “Chicago,” murderess Velma Kelly (portrayed by Bronwyn Owen-Williams) was belting out the lyrics of “All That Jazz” as she and eight other women singers/dancers in flaming red flapper dresses with iridescent beads shimmied like there was no tomorrow.

Nearby, unfortunate albeit had-it-coming Fred Casley (portrayed by Bryan Dunn) walked out of the apartment of his married lover, Roxie Hart (portrayed by Kristen Muscatello). Roxie shot him dead, then nonchalantly said, “Oh! I got to pee.”

The sold-out audience of about 120 erupted in laughter at the Black Box Theatre.

Thursday was preview night for the TheatreWorks Community Players’ production of “Chicago.”

“Chicago” is an adult musical comedy (billed as musical vaudeville) set in 1920s Prohibition-era Chicago. The story is a satire on corruption in the administration of criminal justice and the concept of the “celebrity criminal.” 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.

The musical play won several Tonys, and the film version won several Oscars, including Best Picture of the Year.

The TWCP production features a cast of 17, many of whom play multiple parts. Take stage manager Devin Pendleton, who plays one of the male singers/dancers in some musical numbers, dancing with glamorous girls. In other scenes, he morphes into reporter Mary Sunshine, moving around the stage in a two-piece pink outfit, wearing a teased wig, bright red lipstick, high heels, stockings and sparkling jewelry, and singing in a comical sounding voice — even flirting with the audience on occasion.

Before the show, Pendleton, a 22-year-old customer service representative, said it takes him 10 to 15 minutes to get into costume for Mary, including the nails. He said he never has played a woman before. The part was written to be played by a man in drag, play officials said.

In “Cell Block Tango,” the third of 16 or 17 musical numbers in “Chicago, several merry murderesses in the Cook County Jail sing and tell why the men they killed had it coming (except one accused murderess who steadfastly maintained she is not guilty).

Ironically, one of the merry murderesses (June), portrayed by Heather Shivley of Ridgeway, a 28-year-old massage therapist, portrayed the innocent Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” last summer. In “Chicago,” her character was in jail because her husband “ran into my knife 10 times,” she said.

Before the show, she said she wasn’t nervous (she plays several parts). This is about her 12th show, starting in high school. Being in “Chicago” is fun, she said, mentioning the ’20s setting, the makeup and hair, and vaudeville.

Austin Gilbert, who played police sergeant Fogarty and other parts, said he wasn’t nervous either, but excited. He has been in several shows before. The hardest part of his acting, he said, is portraying the sternness of Fogarty. He also had a more pleasant job of being one of Roxie’s boys (dancing partners), helping lift her off the stage at one point. Gilbert, 19, of Ridgeway, is a rising junior at Roanoke College.

Sultry, sassy, hip swinging jail Matron Mama Morton (portrayed by Michelle Johnson) and slick, ladies’ man, never-lost-a-case-for-a-woman lawyer Billy Flynn (portrayed by Scott Reynolds) were other principal characters in the first act, along with Roxie’s simple, trying-to-be-loyal husband Amos Hart (Jamie Donovant).

During intermission, several people in the audience raved about the production.

“I love it. I can’t believe they have as good of singers as they do,” said Martinsville’s Margaret Fey. “They sound professional.” She said she wondered how the cast was going to do “Cell Block Tango” on a small stage and was impressed with the number.

Her 17-year-old son, Eric, said the play is “fantastic. It’s the best musical I’ve seen.” He said he liked sitting on the front row and seeing right into the character’s faces.

Katherine Heldreth of Martinsville said, “I love it. I’ve seen the play and the movie. I think they are doing a great job.”

Jeb Bassett of Martinsville, said, “I’m most impressed with the talent and singing. I didn’t realize it was such a comedy.”

Meredith Muscatello of Ridgeway, said, “I’m really proud. It’s quite a treat to see my daughter” perform. His daughter is Kristen Muscatello (Roxie). He said “it’s a great” show, and he complimented the director, Dan Spaugh.

Before the show, Spaugh, who has been a professor of speech and drama at Patrick Henry Community College for the past 23 years, said this is the second time he has directed “Chicago.” His first was at PHCC about 20 years ago. This production is smaller and more intimate, has a fairly monotone set, but has splashy costumes and splashy dance numbers, he said. His favorite number in the show is “Razzle Dazzle,” he said.

Corbin Campbell, artistic director for TWCP and scenic designer for “Chicago,” said the stage is located about 45 degrees from where it normally is for TWCP productions, taking advantage of the architecture of the building (multi-levels were needed), reducing the need for construction and showing the adaptability of the Black Box Theater. He said theater in the round may be done sometime in the future.

He also said this is the “first actual musical” that has been performed at the theater (musical revue has been performed in the past) and the first adult musical performed at the theater. He also said “Chicago” normally is performed on a large stage, and, in this case, the stage at Black Box Theater seems larger than it is through such things as lighting, blocking and choreography.

Here are some other bits about the show, provided by Barbara Parker of TWCP:

• Bronwyn Owen-Williams (Velma) and Byron Carter (orchestra) are both 2011 Piedmont Arts’ Hufford Memorial Scholarship recipients.

• Carlisle School staged “Chicago” earlier in the year, and Bronwyn Owen-Williams played the role of Roxie.

• The biggest challenge to TheatreWorks with this show was to choreograph and block a big musical on a small stage area and to put a live orchestra behind the set.

• Since the orchestra members cannot see the stage, they have a television monitor backstage so they know what is going on.


Select News Year: