Students at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School were hard at work rehearsing last week for this week’s production of “Chicago.” The musical features lots of singing and dancing, and this year, will offer two alternating casts for the four performances.
Musical director Abigail Chandler explains why she and director Brooke Ditchfield selected the hit show: “Whenever we’re choosing a show, we look at, One: Who are the kids that will be a part of it? What are their strengths, and where do we as teachers want to see them grow? Two: What have these kids done in the past, meaning, have they done a comedy? A drama? What will help them be more well-rounded? and Three: What have we as a company produced in the past? Is it time for a family-friendly show? What would the Island like to see?”
The 1975 hit version of “Chicago” was birthed with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Ebb and Bob Fosse — who also was the choreographer famous for his iconic jazz style. According to the StageAgent website, the show is a dazzling and satirical look at fame, justice, and the media machine. Set in the 1920s, “Chicago” is based on real-life murders and trials, following Roxie Hart, a wannabe vaudevillian star who murders her lover and is arrested, despite her attempts to convince her pushover husband, Amos, to lie for her. In jail, Roxie meets her hero, the famed double murderer and nightclub performer Velma Kelly. When both acquire the same lawyer, the greedy and lustful superstar, tensions come to a head as they vie for the spotlight in the show within the show.
When talking to the leads of the two casts, what came up repeatedly was the feeling of being a tight-knit troupe. Jack Tully, who is playing Amos Hart, says, “It’s like we’re a little family. It’s so much different than a sports team where you are kind of at each other’s throats for a position. Everybody is more equal here and having fun, and doing what they enjoy.”
The fact that the leads who are not performing that night are part of the general cast helps cement this sense of an ensemble. “Since we’re double-cast, everybody gets to help each other learn if anybody missed a day,” says Aiden Weil, who plays Billy Flynn.
“I play Velma Kelly. The best moment is connecting with everyone,” says Faith Fecitt. “Because we have two casts, it feels kind of divided, but it really isn’t, because I’ve grown closer to the other person who plays my part.” Genevieve Hyland, whose role is Mary Sunshine, adds, “It’s all about the community. We are all here doing what we love, and it’s a lot of fun to do it with these specific people.”
Watching a rehearsal, both casts were infectiously enthusiastic. As Ditchfield worked with the leads during a specific scene, I saw how she helped them dig deep to find their character’s authentic motivation. Madeleine Bengtsson, playing Roxie Hart, says, “It’s surprising how much we were able to find within these individual characters. By trying to figure out what your character wants, where are they coming from, what is their background — we’ve been learning so many things about who we are in the process.”
The actors also spoke about the impact of the diversity of interpretations. Ava McGee, playing matron Mama Morton, says, “One thing that has been challenging is adjusting to the vision that the directors have versus what you have. Every vision is great, and what we’ve produced as a company is incredible.” Hearing McGee’s comment, Emma Burt, who also plays Velma Kelly, chimed in, “If you can see both casts, it’s totally worth it, and you won’t feel like you’re seeing the same show twice.”
Many of the actors had been in “Les Misérables,” and found “Chicago” different, especially because of the vaudeville “show within the show” aspect. “The band and costume rack is on the stage, and it’s also very interactive with the audience, breaking the fourth wall,” Hyland says. Huck Moore, who plays Amos Hart, shared, “The thing that’s most surprising is the big transition from ‘Les Mis’ was that it was opera and had very little dance and blocking.” With Ken Romero’s help as the choreographer, Moore continues, “Here, there’s a lot of dancing, and that’s a big challenge. But I feel like we, as a cast, have overcome that. It is a very different genre and we’ve been able to portray that ’20s vibe of a speakeasy.” Chandler notes that while as usual, they have actors across the grades, this year, “We have more students playing in the pit, which has been a goal of ours for a while.”
Virtually all the students were familiar with “Chicago,” whether having seen the movie and/or live performance when it was put on here some years ago. Jack Crawford, who plays Billy Flynn, says, “I saw the show when I was in fourth grade, and it inspired me to do theater. I felt like I had to fulfill those actors who did it then. I realize as I’ve gone through high school, I’ve grown to become that level of actor. I’ve definitely blown past what I’ve expected of myself.”
All the young performers will be on stage this week, beginning Thursday and continuing through Sunday afternoon.
Performances Feb. 16, 17, 18, at 7 pm, and Feb. 19 at 2 pm, at the Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $10 general admission, $5 students and seniors. Advance reservations suggested at bit.ly/40SdxgE.