Mayhem and murder are not terms one normally associates with the quiet village of Fredonia, but they seemed to thrive with abandon in the SUNY Fredonia Department of Theatre & Dance's Marvel Theater this last weekend.
Continuing a tradition of high-profile musical theatre productions, the department has impressively brought to life Kander and Ebb's epic musical "Chicago," one of Broadway's most popular and successful shows since its inception in 1975. A challenging musical for any professional company to attempt, "Chicago" is rife with challenges and risks for a student cast, but the T&D cast and crew pulled it off extremely well, and for those lucky enough to have purchased tickets to the upcoming, sold-out shows this weekend, you're in for a rare treat.
Holding the record for longest running American musical on both Broadway and London's West End, "Chicago" explores the seedy underbelly of the criminal justice system in 1920s Chicago, from the viewpoint of female convicts, who attempt to spin the notoriety they've garnered from their headline-grabbing murders into fame, fortune, and ultimately freedom. The plot follows the evolution of the show's anti-hero Roxie Hart from a fiery adulteress with an itchy trigger finger to a meek newcomer in the prison system to a woman bent on both regaining her freedom while gaining as much celebrity as she feels she deserves. Along the way she navigates between her cuckold husband, corrupt prison warden, golden-tongued lawyer, fickle press, and most importantly, her fellow inmate Velma Kelly, whom Roxie sees as both someone she aspires to be and must compete with for the spotlight. Throughout it all, the boundaries between the show itself and the vaudeville shows that occur within the plot are easily and effectively blurred.
The SUNY Fredonia production of “Chicago” stars, from left, Madison Osgood as Roxie Hart, Clayton Howe as Billy Flynn and Deanna Jelardi as Velma Kelly. It opened Oct. 19 and runs for six performances in Marvel Theatre at Rockefeller Arts Center.
The acting and singing talent that SUNY Fredonia brings to the stage always been excellent and this show is no different. The two main lead characters are both played to the hilt, with Danna Jelardi sucking the marrow out of every scene as Velma Kelly and Madison Osgood giving a subtle and effective portrayal of Roxie Hart. In a production filled with female characters, both of the male leads held their own extremely well, and while Nick Stevens tugged at the audience's heartstrings as Roxie's husband Amos, Clayton Howe brought what I considered to be the best performance of the show as the grandstanding lawyer Billy Flynn. Three other characters brought an unexpected depth to the show as well: Sophia Howes' gives "Mama" Morton a multi-faceted performance, J.L. Fischer provides a killer falsetto and awesome characterization to a "reverse-pants" role as the journalist Mary Sunshine, and Nicholas Gerwitz as the simple juror not only stole the show, but made me laugh so hard I was crying throughout the courtroom scene.
I know that director/choreographer Paul Mockovak and music director Paula Holcomb had their sights on bringing this show to SUNY Fredonia for quite some time and that dedication and energy was evident throughout the production. The pacing and character arcs were well planned and the dance numbers were smooth and natural. Holcomb's orchestra did an excellent job with the score, balancing with the singers well overall, and demonstrating how talented and flexible our student instrumentalists are. Special kudos to SUNY Fredonia faculty member John Maguda for filling in the principal trumpet chair and giving it the right amount of jazz inflection and style - Cootie Williams would be proud.
"Chicago" is known for its innovative staging potential, with several productions choosing to put the orchestra on stage and have the actors interact around and within the ensemble. This Marvel Theater production seems at first glance to have chosen to take a much more traditional approach to its stage with a flat, gilded wall along the entire stage and the musicians in the pit. As the orchestra jumped into the overture with all the grit and style it requires, one would be forgiven if one assumed this would be a simple, spartan production on stage, that is, until the middle of the stage wall begins to rotate 180 degrees to reveal a resplendent staircase. The rotating stage, with not one but two turntables that allowed the stage to change as well as allow the actors to walk down an imaginary street without moving forward on the stage, was one of the primary characters in the production, allowing a great number of fast scene changes, which gave the production a constant and effective momentum.
Much of the technical aspects of the show were directed by students. Scenic director Theresa Pierce, technical director Joshua Jansen and co-lighting designer Samantha Sayers should get much credit for their work. However, I direct my highest praise to master carpenter and automation operator Bobby DiCandia, who, as an undergraduate student, designed and built the department's first working pneumatic stage turntables, which took the show to a much higher level than should have been expected in a college production.
I would normally plead for those of you in the community who have not yet bought tickets to come see this special production, but as the Chair of Theatre & Dance Tom Loughlin was happy to point out to me, there are no tickets left - the entire run of the musical was sold out before the opening night for the first time in the department's history. That being said, I can tell those of you who are attending this weekend that you're in for a great performance and a wonderful evening.
Three performances are planned in Marvel Theatre this week: tonight, Oct. 25; Friday, Oct. 26 and Saturday, Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m.
Dr. Rob Deemer is an assistant professor of music and head of music composition, the chairman of the University Senate, and the faculty adviser for Ethos New Music Society.