There’s lots of excitement up at Oak Park and River Forest High School right now. The so-called Spring Musical, the annual theatrical extravaganza featuring the talents of scores of students, opens this weekend in the massive Auditorium. This year the show is Chicago, a big, popular Jazz Age tale featuring a rogue’s gallery of crooks and criminals. Perhaps more than any other musical, this one is especially well known to students, thanks to the Oscar-winning 2002 movie version.

Often high school shows have audiences chock full of parents and relatives. But that’s not the case at OPRF. All those involved in this production feel certain their audience will typically also contain many individuals whose offspring graduated long ago. The yearly musical traditionally draws lots of community members who simply enjoy these big shows.

For several days last week I hung out in the school’s basement rehearsal hall, known as the Green Room”even though it’s painted beige”in the lower depths below the stage, watching crowds of kids putting their show together. Their youthful energy after a full day of school was both incredible and curiously contagious. The mood was tense with excitement yet things seemed to be coming together well.

Monty Cole, a junior, plays the pushover, doormat husband of protagonist Roxie Hart, a character loosely based upon an actual “flapper murderess” of 1928 Chicago. Cole tells me, “This show is really going to be something else. There are about 80 students performing on stage, plus that incredible orchestra. If I do say so, we’ve got one of the most talented casts we’ve had in a long time. They’re all triple threats”they sing, they dance, they act.”

Later I watched Cole’s wonderful signature number, “Mr. Cellophane,” a one-man soft-shoe lament that poignantly sums up his nowhere-man status.

During a break in the rehearsal, director Jeffrey Kelly explains, “This is a well-known show that I have wanted to do for an awfully long time. For starters, the Kander and Ebb music is terrific. The lively characters interact during a very thrilling period of local history”a time of hot jazz and cold-blooded killers. Yet it’s also a really challenging, complicated piece. But we are at a peak right now and it’s all coming together. We have been cultivating and developing an incredible talent pool that’s paying off big-time in this production. Our cast is virtually the cream of the cream of the crop. These students are all so multi-talented.”

The story

The musical is based upon two real 1920s murderesses who milk their crimes for all the glory they can grab. Eighty years ago Chicago was a popular play about them, written by a female reporter from the Chicago Tribune. The material was filmed in 1942 as Roxie Hart with Ginger Rogers in the title role. Decades later, dancer Gwen Verdon asked her
ex-husband, the late, great choreographer and director Bob Fosse, to develop a musical from the work. Verdon eventually starred as Roxie in the original 1975 Broadway production of Chicago. (Renee Zellweger played Hart in the 2002 Oscar-winning movie version). Jerry Orbach originated the role of Roxie’s oily lawyer, Billy Flynn.

The two female killers share a love of the limelight. One is vampy Velma Kelly, a cabaret singer who has murdered both her husband and her sister when she discovered them in, shall we say, “a compromising position.” Wannabe showgirl and bored housewife Roxie Hart, who has been carrying on with a low-life furniture salesman, finally realizes he is never going to make her a big vaudeville star, so she shoots him dead. Velma and Roxie find themselves competing for fame on Death Row.

The musical is a parody of how slick, big-buck lawyers can fool juries and exploit the public’s thirst for scandal. Billy Flynn is more a showbiz publicity agent than a legal lawyer. His formula is simple: Turn your client into a media darling and you’ll never lose your case.

The cast

Alex Meyer, a senior who plays charming shyster Flynn, observes: “Chicago is a show about murder and greed and the wild times of the late ’20s. The musical makes you think about the power of the media, which is still much with us. The lyrics carry this theme. It’s incredibly lively music. The score is a real toe-tapper.”

Billy Flynn skillfully manipulates the tabloids. In the age before television, Chicago had numerous competing daily newspapers that tried to scoop one another with sensational crime stories. During the Jazz Age, the justice system virtually became a branch of showbiz with its own impresarios and star system.

Lawyer Flynn’s formula is simple: he turns his cutie pie client Roxie Hart into a media star. Though the technology is more advanced today, human nature remains the same. Think of more recent folks such as Lorena Bobbitt, Kato Kaelin, Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, or other small-timers who enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame until the public grew bored with them.

Maggie McDowell, the junior who stars as murderess Roxie Hart, explains, “This show isn’t all empty escapism like many musicals sometimes are. It really comments on our society and the way the press can manipulate the public. We are so fortunate to be able to do Chicago. Most high schools would never attempt a show this big or heavy. Friends of mine in other schools are really jealous.”

Liz Dengel, a senior who portrays Velma Kelly (played in the film by Catherine Zeta-Jones), says, “We really have a fantastic ensemble. I don’t think OPRF has done a musical with so much dancing in an awfully long time. All of the numbers are pretty amazing.”

Lucy Riner is the choreographer who created the numerous dance routines. “Everyone in the cast seems to have his or her favorite number,” observes Erin Heneghan, a freshman dancer who enjoys “We Both Reached for the Gun” most of all. “It’s a musical press conference that’s like a ventriloquist act,” Heneghan says. “We get to act like puppets.”

Patt Cheney, the make-up designer and co-ordinator for Chicago, says, “We had about 175 students try out for the show. The competition was fierce to get cast. Sometimes with musicals we’re short on male dancers. In a few shows we’ve had girls playing guys to fill out certain numbers. But that’s not a problem this time. We have so many terrific male dancers.”

J.P. Erickson, one of guys who dances in the show, is a junior. “I play several roles,” he explains. “I’m in eight different numbers, and I even sing a little. I’m a gymnast, and I did some stuff in Carousel last year. In Chicago the dancing is really exciting and fun but it’s not always easy keeping all the choreography straight.”

The dark side

From what I witnessed at rehearsals, the number “Cell Block Tango” looks like a true showstopper. Velma Kelly and a gaggle of fellow murderesses sing about how each of their victims all “had it comin’.”

Claire Saxe, a junior who plays one of these Death Row gals, says, “This show definitely has its dark side. I mean, you sympathize with a protagonist who’s killed her sleazy lover. We are asking the audience to root for bad guys really.”

Staff member Cheney explains, “Back in the ’70s this show struck some people as jaded and bitter. There’s none of the traditional romance that always seemed so essential to musicals. Sometimes audience members were uncomfortable with the cynicism. But like Cabaret and a few other dark musicals, this one found its niche and grew in popularity over the last 30 years.”

Michelle Mbekeani, a senior, portrays red-hot Mama Thornton, the corrupt prison matron who was played by Queen Latifah in the movie. “This is my first musical,” Mbekeani says. “It’s pretty exciting, to say the least. Mama Thornton is really an acting challenge. I have to be tough, brassy, and sassy. Most of these characters really aren’t very nice people, yet we have to make the audience warm up to them and have fun with them.”

The production

While musical director Elaine Hlavach is prepping the huge company about the need to list all their props and costumes for each sequence on a little “cheat sheet” so they can keep it all straight, the rehearsal hall is briefly quiet. Kids not currently performing who are sprawled across the floor, close their algebra books, stop munching Cheetos, gossiping, or swilling pop to look up and listen. Though they’ve been working hard on their show every night after school, they’ve all been rehearsing in bits and pieces. They have not yet gone on stage to run the production in sequential order. No one appears stressed, yet tomorrow they will leave the Green Room to finally mount their show on stage for “tech week,” during which they’ll be fine-tuning the production before opening night.

Up on stage, dozens of tech workers are creating the solidly built scenery. “We have about 35 people working on this set,” says freshman Paula Vurgi, one of the assistant carpenters. “The performances will be wonderful, of course. I probably shouldn’t say this, but it’s a shame the actors often get all the credit and glory. The behind-the-scenes tech crew works very hard, too. This musical will have strong production values. We’ve been staying late every night to get everything done just right. I’m afraid my homework has been sliding. But our set is awesome. I love how the design incorporates actual old Chicago locations and buildings. It’s all been carefully researched. This is the first show I’ve worked on, and it’s opened up a new world for me. I love it. In fact, my dad says he’s going to get me some power tools. I’m excited.”

“It’s risky,” explains director Kelly, “but we’re featuring the orchestra on stage behind the performers. We’re going for a very presentational style”like a 1920s jazz club. It’s going to be a challenge, however, since the conductor won’t be able to see the cast.”

Sophomore John Kupczak says, “This is one of the biggest sets we’ve ever built. There’s tons of wood. It’s incredibly solid, like a house. The band will be on stage throughout the whole show and the actors will sometimes be interacting with the musicians.”

Historical authenticity is one of many goals. A Chicago flag on stage will feature only two stars, which was the way it looked in 1928. Actual row houses in the Taylor Street neighborhood are recreated in the set design.

The director

Back down in the Green Room, as one big number ends, the director helps his cast visualize the mechanics of the scene they’ve just finished. “Everyone will scamper off during the blackout transition as the scrim is coming down,” Kelly says. “All this will be happening during thunderous applause, of course. Go now”run to the wings, right and left. Nice work! Great job, guys.”

Kelly, an award-winning theater professional who has directed and designed many productions in the city, will also be creating the costumes. The glitzy look of 1928 is one of his favorite periods.

“This production features the most diverse cast we’ve ever had,” explains Kelly. “This is something we’ve all been working hard on. I am totally thrilled with our performers and crew.”

Freshman Larry Blake says, “Mr. Kelly really chose a wonderful cast out of a very big audition. Getting our show ready to open is such hard work, but it’s also really exciting and fun. I can’t wait until we open.”

“It’s pretty exciting seeing all the ‘pieces’ coming together now,” adds Mbekeani. “We’ve all learned our stuff on our own and have often been running it in sections. There’s lots of singing and dancing. Some of the cast members have been dancing all their lives. I think our audiences are going to be pretty impressed.”

n Chicago will be performed March 3-5 in the Main Auditorium at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and a Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. (Seniors get in free on Sunday). Pre-sale tickets are $8 for adults, $6 for students and senior citizens. At the door tickets will cost $10 and $8. Call 434-3090.

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Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...