The Lake County Theatre Company (LCTC) and the Mendocino College Lake Center jointly produce two shows each year. In July and August they present Shakespeare at the Lake followed by a musical in October and November. Last year’s musical was supposed to have been Chicago, but due to the National Touring production, the rights to the show were not made available. Oklahoma! was selected instead. This year when it was discovered that Chicago was once again up for grabs, the two entities jumped on the chance to secure the Kander and Ebb show.
The musical version is actually based on a book written by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins who was assigned to cover the murder trials for Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner in 1924. The main female characters in the book, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, were inspired by the real life defendants. There was also a film version of the book which stared Ginger Rogers in 1942. Gwen Verdon, who originated the role of Roxie in the Broadway musical version of the book, saw the film version and convinced her husband, Director/Choreographer, Bob Fosse to turn it into a musical. Watkins refused to sell the rights and it was only after her death in 1969 that her estate sold them to Verdon and the project could move forward.
Fosse had worked with Kander and Ebbon the movie Caberet so they were the logical team with whom to collaborate. Ebb wrote the book with Fosse and modeled Velma after entertainer and speak easy manager Texas Guinan, Roxie after torch singer Helen Morgan, Billy after Ted “Is Everybody Happy” Lewis, and Mama after Sophie Tucker.
Last month, just 10 short days after wrapping their joint production of The Taming of the Shrew, LCTC and Mendocino College Lake Center held auditions for their newest joint production, Chicago. As if the timing wasn’t tight enough already, the director for both shows, John Tomlinson, also managed to pull off a wedding and a mini honeymoon prior to turning his attention to Chigaco.
Excitement about this popular musical translated into thirty people auditioning for the production. The auditioners filled out forms, practiced a dance routine, and chatted with one another in one room while they waited for their chance to sing and read for the audition panel in the connecting room. They then got a chance to show off their dancing skills in small groups. Auditions lasted for two days with callbacks on Sunday and the first rehearsal the very next day.
This is the second show that audition materials were posted ahead of time on the LCTC website. The materials included sides (short selections from the script), sheet music, vocal selections, and the instrumental versions of the songs to be used at the audition. Tomlinson explains, Providing the materials ahead of time gives the actors an opportunity to perform better at auditions and also provides the panel an opportunity to see the actors doing their best work.”
Tomlinson continues, “Everyone on the panel was impressed with how well prepared everyone was. Especially when you consider there is not really access to any formal training locally on how to audition for musicals.” Music Director, Marie Schrader, saw lots of growth since seeing many of those same folks at auditions for Oklahoma! last year. “It was obvious that they have been training along the way and putting in the time and work in between shows.”
This year, the team also included a link to a YouTube video of the Broadway Associate Choreographer for Chicago, Greg Butler, teaching a dance routine to the opening number “All That Jazz.” The hope was that folks would get a head start on learning the routine. The choreographer for this production of the show, Zoe Richardson, was pleasantly surprised that everyone had learned the dance ahead of time. “All that I really had to do was review the dance a few times with everyone” before leading them in for the dance audition.
Richardson plans to stay as true to Bob Fosse’s distinctive style as possible as she believes it’s what the audiences will be expecting to see. (If you’ve never seen a Fosse show, his style has been described as sexually suggestive, angular, and as featuring isolated movements.) One of the numbers she is finding most challenging is “We Both Reached for the Gun.” Richardson explains, “The song is a regular four count when it comes to dancing, but it doesn’t sing the same and the tempos constantly change, as well.” The song creates a bit of a pat your head and rub your tummy kind of juxtaposition that is a little harder for the cast to learn, but will be amazing on stage.
The panel was also excited to see a slightly larger than normal turn out and some new faces. In fact, twenty percent of those cast were not previously members of LCTC before the auditions. The turn out can most likely be attributed to the popularity of the movie version of the show. However, Tomlinson points out that “the movie version is a little bit different than the stage version.” Audiences can also expect to hear a duet between Velma and Mama in this production that was cut from the 2002 movie.
Music is a huge part of this show and Schrader, will be using conductible orchestration that is computer generated. But, she said we shouldn’t expect something that sounds like karaoke. “Karaoke is always the same. With this program I can alter the tempo as we go and I can pause to take more time for dialogue. Also, the dancers can rehearse with full orchestration.” Traditionally, for musicals the performers rehearse with piano accompaniment and then about a week before the show opens, the rest of the musicians come in. Unlike the actors, the musicians get paid. Using the program is partially a cost saving measure even though it can cost a few thousand dollars. And, a show like this would require recruiting more than just your traditional four piece band.
Having the luxury of consistency during rehearsals will be especially important to this show. Schrader continues, “There is a lot of music on top of each other. Normally you would have dialogue and then a break.” Chicago has 19 songs, but a total of 38 music numbers when you count all of the extra musical cues built around the dialogue in the show. This is the most this group has ever done in a show before.
Schrader is also impressed with the voices in the show that she has to work with. Jeff Pearce is one of the newest members of LCTC and plays Billy Flynn, Roxie and Velma’s lawyer. Says Scrader, “Jeff’s a crooner. We are very grateful to have him. The girls in the number we were rehearsing the other night heard him for the first time and were so surprised at how good he sounded. In fact, everyone in this show from the leads right down the to chorus have very good voices. It’s great to work with people who are so willing to put the time and effort in to do what needs to be done.”
The cast will be putting in the time and rehearsing four days a week at the Mendocino College Lake Center until they load set, lights, and costumes into the Soper Reese for “Hell Week.” This is the week before the show opens when the tech crew gets to rehearse their cues. This is also the time that the actors get to put singing, dancing and acting together with the set pieces (which they’ve not worked with before), lighting, costumes, make-up, sound, and orchestration. This cast will be ahead of the curve with the latter. And, all of these actors will be balancing their rehearsals, against their family life, full time jobs, finding child care, and all the other day-to-day tasks they have.
If you would like to see the result of this dedicated group of performers’ (and crews’) efforts, you may want to buy your tickets early. Last year’s show, Oklahoma! sold out. Chicago runs October 25, 26, 27, November 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, and 10. Fridays and Saturdays the show starts at 7 p.m. and Sundays the show starts at 2 p.m. Regular pricing is $23 in advance and $28 at the door with special pricing for October 25th and 26th of $18 in advance and $23 at the door.
Tickets can be purchased on line at https://www.soperreesetheatre.com/ or at the box office at 275 S. Main St. Lakeport. The box office phone number is 707-263-0577.
For those of you who have never been to a show at the Soper Reese Theatre, wine can be purchased in the lobby and enjoyed right at your seat while you watch the show. I have a feeling this is one show you won’t want to miss.