The scope, setting and feel of Perseverance Theatre’s latest production is unmistakably “Chicago,” but the heartbeat of this musical is Juneau through and through.
With 21 cast members, 19 of whom are local, a six-piece band and at least 15 major dance numbers, “Chicago” is a complex piece of musical theater that called forth intense concentration and commitment from the theater artists involved. Key members of the artistic team — including director Shona Strauser, choreographer Ricci Adan and musical director Rob Cohen — described it as one of the most challenging and rewarding projects they’ve taken on in Juneau.
“Everybody is bringing their A game,” Strauser said. “This is really some of the best collaborating that I’ve ever done.”
The glitz and grit, razzle and dazzle of “Chicago” opens on the Perseverance stage Friday.
“Chicago,” the longest running American musical on Broadway, was written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The musical, which opened in 1975, is based on the 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a former reporter who drew on real life events she’d written about to build her story. In the play she blends the stories of two women, both jailed for murder, who try to turn events to their advantage by capitalizing on their reputations as murderesses to become famous, with the help of their lawyer, Billy Flynn. Later in life, Watkins real-life role in helping these guilty murderesses escape punishment by sensationalizing their story led the playwright to distance herself from the piece, Strauser said. It wasn’t made into a musical until after Watkins died.
The Perseverance cast includes Allison Holtkamp and Charity Haskins as murderesses Velma and Roxie, Enrique Bravo as lawyer Billy Flynn, Frank Katasse as Amos Hart and Collette Costa as the Matron (see full list of cast and crew at the end of this story).
Strauser said Perseverance’s production highlights the original time period of the story, the 1920s, incorporating imagery of seedy Prohibition-era speakeasies and clubs, while retaining the essential “Fosse-ness” of the 1970s musical — including particular dance moves and gestures which have become an integral part of the piece.
In bringing that aspect of the show to a professional level, Strauser called on Juneau Dance Theatre’s Ricci Adan. Without her expertise, Strauser said, the show would not have been possible.
“I know we wouldn’t be able to do this show without her,” Strauser said. “There’s nobody that I know of in Juneau that has the kind of Broadway training that she does.”
Adan has been training some of the cast as dancers since July, which was part of her agreement in signing on for the project.
“I said, ‘OK, I can go with ‘Chicago,’ but I have to train your kids two months in advance before rehearsal,” Adan recalled. “Because I will not be able to be the choreographer I want to be if you give me no dancers. So about 10 of them came to my classes since July, and I’ve been training them and training them.”
Though she refers to the dancers as “kids,” there are no kids in the production due to the adult nature of the story. (Similarly, it’s recommended for audience members 13 and up).
Adan said for her the project also represents the rewarding process of sharing the knowledge she was lucky enough to gain during her own training in musical theater. Her background in New York includes personal experience with many of the biggest names in the business, including Fosse, Agnes DeMille and Lee Theodore, among many others. With all that to draw on, she said, it is her responsibility to share it.
“Because I’ve had that experience, it’s my responsibility to give it to the next of kin, I can’t own that. That’s something I have to give. It’s the legacy. It’s America’s heritage, it was given to me so that I can give it back.”
Adan has been building a base for musical theater in Juneau through JDT and as an artist in the schools over the past four years. She said she feels Juneau actors and dancers were “hungry” for a production of this magnitude, noting that more than 55 people showed up to audition. That enthusiasm later translated into commitment for those who came on board, with exciting results.
“This is the best work I’ve done so far in Juneau,” Adan said.
Adan had worked with some of the dancers in the past, including Taylor Vidic, Alexandra Brown, Hali Duran (her dance captain) and Zeb Bodine. Others had more work to do, and for some of the newer dancers, the training was overwhelming, particularly the ballet she required them to learn. Still, they all stepped it up and powered through.
“If you keep those stakes high, it goes a different way. But if you just go to the mediocrity of things, it stays there,” Adan said. “I didn’t want that. I wanted to work, and work the way I wanted.”
Musical director Cohen was also given a job well-suited to his expertise as a composer, jazz historian and musician, one he could really sink his teeth into. His first and most important step was to adapt the original music, made for a 14 piece band, to accommodate six musicians. That required going through the score measure by measure and reassigning notes and trading parts in some cases, and rearranging and rewriting music in others — a process called reducing the score. Throughout the process, Cohen said he wanted to be sure to retain the composer’s original musical intention and present that in the best way possible. He called the experience one of the biggest challenges he’s ever had, and the result one that he and the band members are very happy with.
“I took the score reduction as seriously as any project I’ve ever undertaken,” he said. “That’s what I felt would be ‘make-or-break’ for this show.”
Overall the music reflects jazz styles of the 1920s, played by “a little jazz orchestra in a seedy little club in Chicago.” All of the musicians are local with the exception of Gerald “JD” Tolman, a multi-instrumentalist from St. Louis. Cohen said the all of the musicians were on board from day one.
“Everyone has realized the work involved and realized what’s at stake ... and the kind of product we can produce if everyone keeps their focus strong and their energy high,” he said. “The band has done that for me and more.”
Cohen, who also worked with the actors on individual songs and with the chorus on harmonies, said one of the things that made it challenging was the fact that the music is completely integrated into the action, movement and dialogue of the show.
“This isn’t just a score that sits back in the background while the singers sing over it,” he said. “It’s a very participatory score ... The band often is put in the position to need to respond on a dime to particular lines and actions, and that all needs to be coordinated.”
“It’s just precision — with the dance moves, with the intention, with the songs, with the dialogue, with this music. It’s just completely precision,” Strauser said. “And then you have to make it look organic, which is actually the hardest part.”
Strauser said Perseverance was only able to secure rights to do the famous show because Juneau is such a small town; bigger cities like Anchorage can’t get permission because touring companies might want to bring their shows to town. For that reason, the show will not be traveling to Anchorage.
“It’s only because we live in Juneau that we can actually do this show,” Strauser said.
Strauser said overall, her position as director was as much about collaboration as anything else.
“I think as I get older, and have more experience, (it) becomes less about being a director and much more about being the best collaborator I can be,” she said. “There is a person who makes an ultimate decision, that makes sense to me, but it’s the collaboration that actually informs all those decisions, and on this piece I’m feeling that more than ever before.”
Cast members for Chicago are Allison Holtkamp, Charity Haskins, Frank Katasse, Jessica Skiba, Taylor Vidic, Jeanne Murray, Salissa Thole, Collette Costa, Enrique Bravo, Richard Carter, Keith McCoy, Olivia Shrum, Hali Duran, Koko Urata, Meredith Wallis, Zebadiah Bodine, Mikaela Levy, Jeff Hedges, Carraig New, Aaron Abella and Alexandra Brown.
Musicians are Rob Cohen, Dale McFarlin, Katy Giorgio, Greg Williams, Gerald “JD” Tolman and Doug Bridges.
The artistic team is Shona Strauser (director) Paul Spadone (set and costumes), Greg Mitchell (lights), Ricci Adan (choreography), Rob Cohen (music direction and sound design), Betsy Sims (audio design and stage manager), Jason Ginter (assistant stage manager), Ruth Kostik and BJ Brooks (rehearsal stag managers) and Kathleen Harper (production manager, props master).
“Chicago” opens Friday and runs through Dec. 7.
For more information, visit www.perseverancetheatre.org.