‘Chicago’ Rehearsals Promise Satirical Jazz Spectacle

As the actors advance toward each other, their gestures matching the rising, volatile emotions of their characters, the tense scene is fractured only by the clutter of boxes and raw set materials on the stage. That, and the flurry of other cues to indicate that, despite the compelling performances already taking shape, the directors and cast of Robsham Theater’s upcoming Chicago are in the midst of rehearsal. Sporting 21st century casual attire and eagerly making notes in their scripts, the actors crafted the details and nuances of their characters with the guidance of director and BC ʼ98 alum  Michelle Miller, and musical director David McGrory.

The BC theatre department chose the dark, satirical Chicago for production on Oct. 18 to 21, and casting required students that could sing, act, and dance, the triple threats of the stage. Over Labor Day weekend, roughly 70-80 students prepared cuts of up to two songs to audition, many of whom were freshmen performing on one of their first weekends at college.

“I tell the students, ‘congrats, you’ve made this big leap in showing up on a stage to sing your heart out,’” Miller said. “As a BC alum, I know what it’s like to stand where they do.”

Miller has been involved in theatre her entire life. After trading the Broadway track for service-oriented involvement, Miller felt more engaged and alive teaching underprivileged youth through ASTEP (Artists Striving To End Poverty), and considers directing a natural extension of that energy. Through her wealth of experience, she can tell a lot about a student’s style, vocal skill, and confidence from brief excerpts of song. When choosing a cast, she looks for stage chemistry between the actors, and champions a meritocracy.

“A good attitude is easy to work with to bring anyone up to the overall skill level of the cast,” Miller said. “Students that are coachable, ready to take risks, and encouraging to other actors are vital to a safe creative environment.”

Miller still finds the casting process heartbreaking, however, as it requires sending some students away that weren’t the right match for a specific role. Even if an actor wasn’t the one for a role, he or she might have been perfect for a role in a different play. For Chicago, Miller was happy to find the right students for the parts through the way they tapped into their own experience and personality to embody those of their characters. Students often create intricate backstories of their characters to understand them better, which often includes looking at the “verbs,” or what drives the character.

In the lead role of Roxie Hart is actress Elizabeth Koennecke, MCAS ʼ19, who has wanted the part since she saw Chicago on Broadway at 13.

“Roxie has her faults, as every character does, but she’s bubbly and charming,” Koennecke said. “As an optimistic person, I latched onto that same attitude.”

This production of Chicago will closely follow historical details, drawing from source material from the 1920s murder trials, and the stylishly evocative nature of the 20s. The dance numbers, choreographed by David Connolly, serve as a tribute to Fosse’s aloof, sassy choreography, without directly performing Fosse’s original work. And the musical numbers will embody the musical’s unmistakable jazz songs.

As musical director, McGrory rehearses the songs with the cast, providing piano accompaniment  and ensuring the soloists and ensemble are in unison when necessary. He starts the process by teaching the cast its song melodies, and then focuses on the cues it should attend to in order to sing at the right times. Given the integral role the songs play in the storytelling of the play, McGrory works with the actors to understand how the songs fit into the story arc. Jazz music is known for having an upbeat, swinging sound, and hails from an earlier, less complicated era. Its simple harmonies leave lots of room to build a storyline brimming with dark comedy and excess attitude.

“It’s a satirical show, which calls on them to be cartoonish to make the serious subject matter land,” McGrory said.

McGrory also spends time with the cast on their vocal style. This means expanding on the cast’s talents in musical theatre singing, and stylizing it to fit jazz. It’s a considerable change from what many actors are used to, and McGrory highlights the emotional connections underlying the music to help the cast grasp the content of the songs. The process also includes stripping voices of the influence of modern pop songs in order to access each note and its unfiltered sound.

Rehearsals for a professional, regional-level production would last for about two weeks, eight hours a day. But for BC students with busy schedules and demanding course loads, the schedule spans five days per week for six weeks. It’s difficult to run cast-wide rehearsals, so Miller and her team divide their rehearsal space to maximize the time: music and acting in one room, choreography and dance in another.

The six-week rehearsal schedule is a marathon, and the directors prioritize the wellness of their cast during the process. McGrory and Miller are careful to monitor their actors to ensure the cast doesn’t damage their voices or burn out before opening night. Miller finds a seamless collaborative process with McGrory and Connolly. The directors and the cast are dedicated to maintaining an educational, encouraging, and professional rehearsal environment, which does not preclude them from enjoying the experience.

“We laugh a lot—everyone has good days and not so good days,” Miller said. “People slip up on lines, or slip and fall in choreography, and we encourage people to dust themselves off and move on. The standards we set here are what they’ll expect in their professional lives, and I want them to expect others to respect their boundaries, personhood, and talent.”

As opening night approaches, the Chicago team is looking forward to the entire performance coming together.

“The musical numbers get more and more fabulous and intricate,” Koennecke said. “We started with a blank slate, and everyone adds layers to it.”

McGrory echoed that sentiment, and enjoys bringing the full band into rehearsals as the actual performances approach.

“It’s fun teaching the music, but it’s also fun to add all those colors and tones to it, and see the cast’s eyes light up when the energy steps up again,” McGrory said.

Until the sparkles and feathers emerge from the costume shop, and the bars of the cell block impose on the stage, the Chicago team will be striving to create the dark splendor of its ’20s jazz core.

Featured Image By Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor