Why produce Chicago: High School Edition? As an educator, I am always looking for growth opportunities for my students. What skills and experiences do they have? What do they need? A show like Chicago offers opportunities for those eager to be in the spotlight, but also for those looking to take risks. Sometimes, those risks pay off dividends you did not expect. Sometimes, minds are cracked open and potential unleashed. I can think of more than a few students who were transformed by show experiences this year alone. The student who may have been intimidated by other actors in the company, or had never danced in a show before, or was dying to be seen and was afraid to audition: They took risks.
In the Holy Heart Performing Arts Program, we endeavour to challenge our students not only in the curriculum, but in exciting workshops with guest artists and new performance opportunities in aerial dance shows and classic theatre. They learn not only to follow and be a part of an ensemble, but to lead. We have a leadership team of students every year who assist with programming shows and workshops, who become assistant directors, vocal assistants, technical assistants, and assistant choreographers. We have a very active theatre program which produces a number of small and large mainstage shows every year, but Chicago: High School Edition was a special opportunity for our students. To have access to the creative choices, dialogue, and music that make the story of Roxy Hart and Velma Kelly tick as crafted by Fosse, Ebb, and Kander was an exceptional opportunity not to be forgotten.
At a glance, the sizzle and sass that is embodied by the personas of the “Cell Block Tango” in Chicago would not seem an appropriate selection for high school students, maybe even too risqué. For many years, I would have agreed. Each school year, when the time arrived for the creative team to pick the school musical or plays for the Performing Arts program, students always asked, “What about Chicago?” Honestly, my reaction to my very eager theatre students was always “No.” But the script for this edition changed my mind. It was deftly crafted by iTheatrics and makes subtle edits that take nothing away from the original. This adaptation is effective, fun, tight, and a joy to work on.
The Holy Heart Performing Arts Program production of Chicago: High School Edition represented the fourth mainstage production for our students for the 2017-2018 school year. It was their last major performance and their biggest of the year. Much of our Performing Arts program has been focused on family-friendly classics and fantasy which require massive sets and special effects. Chicago provided an opportunity for our students to take on mature characters, plot, and music that may otherwise be unavailable to them. Another unexpected bonus — the comedy! This show is full of humour; in fact, during some rehearsals I would jokingly say, “Ok, let’s stop having fun.”
So often, plays that have been films become a source of performances for young actors to copy. I feel inspiration comes from many wells, but we reinforced to our students that they should develop their own characters. While it might seem obvious, we felt it was important to remind our students that this was a new and exciting adaptation of a musical theatre classic. They had an opportunity to put their own stamp on these characters. We encouraged them to honour the tradition set by the original and not simply provide imitations of the film or any other performances they had seen. In scene study and rehearsals, we discussed the core of the characters and did exercises to put them in this place and time. The women in this show are strong, clever, and resourceful. And yes, they make moral judgements we would not, but from their perspective, they make choices they feel are right for them in the moment. So, from this starting point, sculpting these characters had a clear focus. Along with exploring the seedy underbelly of Chicago and its modern-day parallels, to produce Chicago, your students need to have killer dance choreography. Our choreographer (and assistant director) Pamela Pittman was up the task. She embraced the fire and spirit of Fosse and created exciting new dance numbers that elevated our students’ performances to new heights. Show after show, the audience members were on their feet and came along for all the “Razzle Dazzle” Chicago: High School Edition has to offer. Roxy takes so many risks in Chicago. And the amazing thing is almost every single one pays off. If you have a student who is looking to take a chance or needs to build confidence, a student who desperately wants to stage manage their first musical or is yearning for their first lead, as I did, then Chicago: High School Edition might be the right town for you to visit. Build a great team, find your allies, take risks, and you might “even get away with murder.” Thanks to great collaborators this has been the best high school musical I have worked on. I say that without reservation.