Wednesday, August 19, 2015

CHICAGO THE MUSICAL - That's a Wrap, Folks!


After the final performance of a theater play or musical show the cast and crew do something called a set strike. It’s exactly what it sounds like… you take the set apart, clean out the dressing rooms, backstage areas, etc., to make the theater look like it did before you started your show. When finished, it’s like you were never there. While there are no more traces of Chicago the Musical at Shreveport Little Theatre, the experience has left an indelible mark on my heart.  I can say with all honesty and openness that this experience has been the most challenging and most rewarding onstage experience of my life. I have spent a lot of time on the stage, so that’s really saying something.

It all started for me in December. I participated in the Christmas edition of the Broadway Belters, which is basically just a bunch of theatre people singing Broadway show tunes to raise money for the non-profit Shreveport Little Theatre (SLT). It was there that the summer musical announcement was made. SLT had gotten the rights to do Chicago the Musical, which is a pretty big deal. They had been soliciting the rights for years to no avail; only one theater per region per year is granted the rights since the musical is still being performed on Broadway. It is the longest running musical in Broadway history, now in its 19th year. It’s iconic. And from the minute I heard the announcement, I wanted to be a part of it. More than that, I wanted to play the role of Velma Kelly. Why? Several reasons, really. She’s snarky and sarcastic, she has a great character arc – goes from being the top dog to learning lessons of humility - and of course, because she opens the show by singing “All That Jazz.” That’s reason enough by itself, don’t ya think?

I wanted the role, and I set my sights on it. I knew I wasn’t in my best physical shape, due to age and a lot of hours in front of the television. I worked out some, sure, but hadn’t trained for anything in a while. So starting in February my treadmill and I got to be really good friends. Well, that’s not really accurate… I hate the stupid thing. But we spent a LOT of time together. I’d run for a few miles then lift weights. I was working out 4-5 days a week leading up to auditions which were April 11th and 13th.

I was more nervous about these auditions than I had ever been about any other auditions, probably because I wanted the part so badly. (I was so nervous, in fact, that at my doctor’s appointment the day of the call backs, my blood pressure was 170/105. The nurse looked at me really funny and then checked it again. It was the same. She contemplated sending me straight down to the emergency room until I explained that I was nervous about an audition and promised her I would settle down. They only let me leave after checking it about 20 minutes later and the numbers had gone down.)

The work paid off! I got the role. We didn’t start rehearsals until June 1, so to get a head start I went online and purchased the script. Along with my continued workouts, I memorized my lines and the music.  I was pretty much off book by the time rehearsals began, which was a good thing, since I knew the dancing part of the show would be my biggest challenge. Also, the director/choreographer mentioned to me that she planned to make me tap dance… which I had NEVER EVER EVER done before. So I bought some tap shoes, took one lesson from a professional and learned everything else I possibly could from YouTube videos. I would spend HOURS in my garage tapping on a piece of hardwood plywood my husband bought me from Lowe’s. It turned out to be great exercise and FUN! (Now that the show is over I’m hoping to find a tap class in the area for grown-ish people… I don’t want to take lessons with a bunch of 5 year olds in pink tutus. That would be a little awkward and embarrassing.)

Once rehearsals started everything just fell into place. I’ve never loved a cast more, or shared a stage with a group of people who worked so hard or got along so well. The entire cast and crew showed up to rehearsals early, stayed late, respected each other, and had fun. I fell in love with my co-leads and miss them already. And our love for each other and for the show made it fun for our audiences, too; we sold out every show but one. And we performed 15 shows in 3 weeks, July 15 through August 2, which is a really long run for community theater.

THE LEAD ACTORS


MY PARTNER IN CRIME
Playing the role of Roxie Hart was Jenny Warren. I have to admit I was a little intimidated by Jenny in the beginning because I knew she had a gazillion years of dance training on her resume. But as it turned out, once I got to know her we had loads of fun together, even when our characters were supposed to hate each other onstage. There were a few times when I really had to work hard to hold back laughter during shows. Jenny is a tremendous actress and one who is very giving of herself. She worked SO hard and was the perfect Roxie; there is no one I would have rather shared the spotlight with. She is also such a joy to be around – so very funny, smart and quick-witted.  Jenny moved to Seattle right after the show was over, which makes me sad. I hope she returns and we can share the stage again one day.


THE MATRON
My buddy, Barbara Holmes, played the role of Matron Mama Morton. If you’ve never heard Barbara sing… holy Moses, you are missing out! That woman has the voice of an angel. Well, an angel with a really powerful, belty alto voice. She’s incredible. She also has the sweetest spirit… truly one of the nicest, kindest people you’ll ever meet. Barbara and I shared several scenes together and toward the end of the run, when we all became very comfortable in our roles, there were three or four times when I had to go hunt for her before our next scene. We laughed big over that. She’d be on the wrong side of the stage just watching the current scene, or backstage eating a snack… I’d find her and say “Well, are you going to join me onstage, or what?!” We would crack up laughing, and then step onto the stage and kill it.


LARGER THAN LIFE
John Bogan played the role of Billy Flynn. I had not met John prior to rehearsals, but he just happened to be the first cousin of my college roomie, Kim! So he felt like family almost immediately. It was fascinating to watch John’s character progression during rehearsals; he is such a gifted performer. He would bring a new facet to his role each day until finally, by the time we were in dress rehearsals, he tied it all together with “the look” of Billy Flynn. John’s forte is dialogue, and it was just delightful to watch him in action. He’s quick, knows how to use language to drive a scene, and his comedic timing is perfect. His Billy Flynn was larger than life, and absolutely brilliant.



SHOW STEALER
Amos Hart was played by the incomparable Blake Powell. He. Was. PERFECT. Blake is an absolutely incredible character actor, and a joy to work with. He was very quiet in the beginning, so I didn’t really get to know him until we started dress rehearsals. I never shared a scene with Blake, but my scenes typically followed his, so I was able to watch him work from the side of the stage. His portrayal of Amos Hart was flawless. And he stole every single scene he was in. His attention to character detail – the way he moved, his facial expressions, his voice, EVERYTHING was impeccable. To top off his extraordinary talent, Blake is also a great, great guy. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to get to know and work with Blake. I hope I can work with him again someday.


THE DIRECTORS
Adam Philley was the music director and Laura Beeman Nugent was the director/choreographer. These two people are not only incredibly talented, but they also made every minute of this experience fun. Laura’s vision for the show was genius; from the sets to the costumes, to the choreography – everything came together perfectly. Adam was not only a brilliant conductor (yes, we had a live orchestra!), but also very skilled at teaching the entertainers the score. He paid strict attention to detail, but also allowed us the creative freedom to make the songs our own.  I had never worked with either of them prior to this, but I would work with them again tomorrow if given the chance. They were always on the same page creatively; it was almost like they shared a brain. One thing that I appreciated so much about them as a team was how organized they were. They sent us a schedule a couple of weeks before rehearsals started that showed exactly what scenes and musical numbers we would be working on each day of the month leading up to dress rehearsals. They NEVER deviated from that schedule. If you were called on a certain day at a certain time, then you would work on that specific scene. For a person like me, who was commuting two hours round-trip for much of that time, it really meant a lot to me to know that there was a schedule and it would be followed. And they kept everyone accountable. There was never a time that something had to be pushed back because someone was late, or didn’t show up. It was KNOWN that if you didn’t show up, you’d be replaced. It didn’t matter if you played a lead role or were in the ensemble. As part of this team, we were all expected to respect each other’s time and that’s exactly what happened. And it made the experience unforgettable.  I’m so grateful to them both for choosing me to play Velma Kelly. It was a dream role, one that offered a huge challenge and an even greater reward.

I am so thankful to have been part of this production. I met many new friends, and I pray that one day I am able to work with them all again. Shout out to Shreveport Little Theatre for giving me such a wonderful opportunity. Until we meet again…

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