Theater Department Puts Razzle-Dazzle in “Chicago”
by Shannon T. Zarb | Back to Table of Contents
Slick, stylized and arriving on the heels of the mini-series “Fosse/Verdon,” Ravenscroft’s production of “Chicago” showcased “all that jazz” — and then some. As Director of Fine Arts David McChesney put it, “Nothing like this has ever been done in our theater.”
“My hope was to make our production feel so close to the original that people forgot it was a made-for-high-school version,” theater director Jason Sharp said.
Here’s how the theater department staged a show whose ambitious approach was matched by its impressive execution, with lots of inspiration and support along the way.
CELL BLOCK TANGO
While most cast members had acting experience, only one — Sarah Davenport ’21, who played Velma — had formal dance training. Sharp said he found the show’s “silver bullet” in choreographer Bronwen Carson, an award-winning actor who trained with Gary Flannery, a favorite of “Chicago” choreographer Bob Fosse.
“Working with Ms. Carson during rehearsal brought professionalism and high standards to the cast of ‘Chicago,’” Sarah said of the experience. “She helped me, as well as the entire cast, understand what it means to work together.”
“I’ve never trained in dance, so initially I was a bit uncomfortable,” Elle Schantz ’20, who played Roxie, said. “It took a lot of work, many rehearsals and a few days with sore feet, but everyone ultimately excelled in dancing and gave a great performance.”
I CAN’T DO IT ALONE
Because of the cast’s intensive work on choreography, vocal rehearsals were trimmed early on to just one day a week. That meant that, during many rehearsals, cast members depended on vocal tracks to support their mastery of the songs.
“I was worried about it being a dance show without the singing,” musical director Cameron Bolin remembered with a chuckle. “One of the biggest challenges was when students had to sing on their own.”
Sydney Mizelle ’21, who played Matron “Mama” Morton, agreed. “It took a lot of effort to move away from the track,” she said. “My song had a lot of unclear cutoffs, so Mrs. Bolin and I coordinated small body cues that I would make during the song to let her know when to bring the band in and out.”
ALL THAT JAZZ
With the right sound so essential to the musical’s success, directors also brought in a professional orchestra, which was situated prominently on stage to add to the show’s Jazz Age vibe.
“Having the orchestra on stage was definitely a statement,” said staff accompanist SK Chipley, who joined six other Ravenscroft faculty in the group. “It gave an extra punch of energy to the performance.”
More creativity was needed when Bolin realized the set design — which featured a stairway in the middle of the stage — split the orchestra in half, leaving some musicians unable to see her conducting during the show.
“An inspired combination of lighting and video monitors for the musicians helped us get the cues right,” Bolin said. “That’s just another example of the ingenuity required to put on a show like this!”
In terms of staging, “Chicago” is meant to be a minimalist production.
“It’s a show that depends on a certain look,” said stagecraft teacher Russell Vacanti, who served as set builder and lighting designer. “The greatest challenge for me was not to go too big — to keep the lights low and resist the temptation to make sure the audience could see every little detail.”
It was the crew’s finishing touches that took center stage: the bandstand trimmed in gold, the dancers’ vaudeville-style feathered fans, and the newspaper declaring “Roxie Rocks Chicago,” complete with a photo of Schantz as Roxie.
“As we stripped away so many of the pieces audiences expect, we knew everything we put on stage needed to be perfect,” Sharp said.
Performance photography by Simon Capell.
Enjoy more photos from the Theater Department’s recent productions:
Philanthropic support helps “Chicago” dazzle
As Velma and Roxie’s lawyer, Billy Flynn, wouldn’t hesitate to point out, getting results costs money. The same is true for theater productions at Ravenscroft.
“Producing the musical is a full collaborative event involving the Fine Arts office, the various directors and the Fine Arts Association,” theater manager Russell Vacanti explained. “The musical in general, and the set in particular, depends on the Fine Arts Association for much of its funding.”
In meeting the additional demands of this show, fine arts faculty were aided by Ravenscroft’s strong culture of philanthropy. In fact, 80% of the show’s budget was drawn from philanthropic support such as endowments, sponsorships and Fine Arts Association fundraising.
“This show was not only about knowing where to spread our resources so we could have a good show but also ensuring good stewardship of the money we had access to,” Director of Fine Arts David McChesney said. “The theater program — and the entire Fine Arts Department — is so successful in our work because of the outstanding volunteer and financial support of our community.”