March 30, 2004 > Chicago
Newark Memorial Theatre Dept.
by Christopher Cobb
While the film swept last year's Academy Awards, Newark Memorial High School Theatre Department's latest offering of "Chicago" takes the production places where the movie didn't go.
The musical by Kander & Ebb has already garnered a lot of attention, but in a country currently obsessed with the Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson cases, is it any wonder the musical feels fresher than ever?
Of course, the wrong-doers in "Chicago" are not men, but women, each guilty of murderous crimes of passion; and while some even admit to it, each also vehemently maintains their innocence. Included among them are established vaudeville star Velma Kelly, and vaudeville wannabe Roxie Hart. Both women enlist the money-hungry talents of criminal defense attorney Billy Flynn. However, a struggle begins between the two of them - which of their stories is more sensational, which can sell more newspapers, which will keep their enthralled radio audience captivated the longest?
Monique Altamirano plays Velma with an unstoppable dynamic from the first second she rushes onstage. Brittany Ellen Harrington's cooler approach to Roxie helps balance this, a perfect yang to Altamirano's ying.
The other big star in this show is the music. Well known favorites "All That Jazz," "Razzle Dazzle," and "Cell Block Tango" give way to lesser-known but stronger numbers like "When You're Good to Mama," and "Funny Honey." Orchestra Director Rob Hoexter succeeds in assembling an able group to support the student performers.
Director Steven Harrington's production immerses the audience into the crass and hungry world of 1930's Chicago. Sensation sells, and plenty are willing to kill for a shot at the spotlight. For the director, the book and score are merely jumping-off points in what is admittedly a conceptually spare musical - and more often than not the ends justify the means. Larger-than-life newspaper clippings swing onstage as Billy Flynn (played with zeal by Michael Sagun) decides what the proper story should be released to bolster public opinion.
This exposes a darker aspect to America's fascination with sensationalized crime: "Chicago" becomes a world where reality has nothing to do with the truth. The countless layers of the climactic courtroom scene (and a marvelously well-staged version of "Class") show that even the very fabric of this "reality" is permeable.
The choreography by Lisa Otterstetter works well with the amount of bodies that take the stage, and while the closing "Keep it Hot" feels a little anticlimactic, every other number is a pleasure to watch.
While the show doesn't shy from the inherent foul language and adult situations it never comes across as inappropriate. After all, while the alleged sins of Michael Jackson are once again considered "news," at least "Chicago" has a message behind its madness.