Theater department's production of 'Chicago' to open Friday

by Madeline Killen | 2/17/16 6:00pm

We might be able to blame the theater department for the wind chill over Winter Carnival weekend. While the rest of campus was human dogsled racing and taking a stab at ice sculpting, the cast and crew of this term’s main stage production were working hard to bring the Windy City to Hanover. For the next two weekends, students will be staging “Chicago” (1975), the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.

The massive scale and appeal of the iconic musical both challenged and excited the cast and crew. The scale of musicals makes them more difficult to create and call than straight plays, according to technical director Scott Silver.

Robert Leverett ’16, who plays the male lead Billy Flynn, said that he is most looking forward to and most nervous about the spectacle and production value of the show.

“It’s more things to worry about — like am I going to be able to hit this note tonight,” Leverett said. “It’s using different muscles than other shows.”

Leverett is a theater major but has never been formally trained in singing or dancing, and expressed anxiety about these aspects of “Chicago.” However, stage manager Kyla Mermejo-Varga ’17 is not worried about his performance.

“The other night, I was watching [Leverett] do a number, and for the first time in the process, I wasn’t consciously aware that I was watching [Leverett],” she said. “It was just crazy.”

His co-stars Veronica Burt ’16 and Carina Conti ’16, playing Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart respectively, do not share this nervousness as both are involved in dance groups on campus. Burt, a member of Sugarplum, is excited for the opportunity to combine her love of dance and theater, especially in a show that emphasizes dance numbers, Burt said.

“I actually got into theater through dance,” Burt said. “It’s really rare for me to be able to use my dance ability with my theater training.”

Burt said that she feels Velma is a character she “should be playing” because the role has multiple dance numbers, Velma’s songs fit vocally in Burt’s range and her personality appeals to Burt.

“She’s outspoken, she’s sassy, she has a strong sense of self. She’s just a fiery character,” Burt said.

Mermejo-Varga and Burt both expressed their excitement over the range of people that a show as well known as “Chicago” attracts.

“There’s such a vast assortment of interests and majors. It’s just so many people from so many different departments that are all coming together,” Mermejo-Varga said. “It’s just gorgeous.”

Burt noted that the cast’s breadth of experiences and caliber were positive aspects of the show.

Silver echoed this statement, saying that his favorite part of any production is his interactions with the students.

Mermejo-Varga specifically praised the two female leads, Burt and Conti.

“Their dancing is amazing, they’re both great singers, their acting is great too,” she said. “They’re incredible. I don’t know how they do it. I mean, I think my job is stressful.”

Mermejo-Varga is right to think her job as the show’s stage manager is stressful. The musical number “All That Jazz” alone contains 40 cues for which she is responsible, she said. According to Silver, the lighting and projections are the most challenging components of “Chicago,” and much of the responsibility for this falls on its student stage manager, who calls all the cues from the booth on production nights.

“If you look at the whole production rehearsal process, from auditions all the way to the end, no one works harder than the stage manager,” Silver said. “It’s a very hard thing to put on a student, but Kyla has risen to the occasion.”

Mermejo-Varga said she is looking forward to seeing the show “all put together” and for her family to come see the production all the way from New Mexico.

While the production value of the show — which Mermejo-Varga said she thinks attracts people that are not usually theater fans — is a challenge to its crew, the cast struggles more with the over-the-top script. Musicals are “inherently not realistic,” Burt said, which presents difficulty for the actors involved in them.

“You have to find the truth in that. You have to think it’s fine that you’re singing suddenly in this scene,” Burt said. “You’re navigating awkward period lines and songs and finding some sort of honesty.”

Leverett also noted the struggle that comes with giving an honest performance as an actor.

“It’s just been challenging to find an emotional and psychological truth that still reaches the level of the material,” Leverett said.

The students agreed that the unrealistic elements of the show have a modern-day mirror in reality television, and specifically hinted that the Kardashians may make a cameo in the musical. Burt said that the themes of the show “really work with today,” and Mermejo-Varga more explicitly stated that a major take-home theme of “Chicago” is to “stop making stupid people famous.”

“The show has a very complicated image of fame,” Leverett expanded. “To make an easy statement about figures who are seen as being famous for doing nothing would be reductive, and I think that the show really allows for a complicated look at people who are famous for reasons other than the ideal.”

Burt says that this theme is “more relevant than ever.”

The students’ praise for each other and their similar views about acting may be due in part to their shared experience on the theater foreign study program this past summer in London. Mermejo-Varga, Burt, Conti and Leverett all attended the program together. Burt credits the FSP for their “similar way of thinking about theater,” and said that many of them are “going to try to make it [in the theater industry].”

Burt thinks that the massive scale of “Chicago” is a perfect symbolic ending to her and her co-stars’ theater careers at Dartmouth.

“We get to be the stars here in our final year and then we’re about to go slum it out in the real world,” Burt said. “But here’s this time where we get to work together and really try to hone everything that we’ve learned.”

This weekend’s performances will be Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Moore Theater. Next week’s performances will be Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $5 for students and $10 to $15 for community members.There will be a free presentation about the production of “Chicago” on Saturday, Feb. 20, at 5:30 p.m. and a post-show discussion with members of the creative team after the Feb. 26 performance.