O.J. Simpson didn’t invent the concept of a celebrity criminal — he learned his tricks from the ’20s. A little murder, booze and scandal plus a whole lot of sweet-talking form “Chicago,” a 35-year-old show set in Prohibition-era Chicago. Though the same concept seems to define both the Broadway and movie versions, Ithaca College is spinning some new razzle dazzle into the classic script.
The show is the second production in the college’s main stage 2010-11 theater season. The plot surrounds Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly as they deal with the consequences of their respective murders.
Director Greg Bostwick, professor of theater arts, said his directional approach for the college’s version is unlike the typical “Chicago” production.
“It’s sort of an idealized biography,” he said. “My idea is that [Roxie and Velma] actually wrote the show. They went through these things, and then out of all of that, they write sort of the trials and tribulations of their lives and how they have ascended to stardom through notoriety.”
The Broadway show presents the action as it happens. Bostwick said he is taking a “show within a show” approach with the idea that the characters are Vaudeville stars who have been hired by Roxie and Velma to perform a show about their pasts.
“If you tell a well-worn tale, a story everybody’s familiar with, the idea is ‘well, what aspect of that can we illuminate that hasn’t been illuminated before?’” Bostwick said. “So that’s what I’m trying to do. My hope is [the audience] will go, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that’ or ‘I never thought of “Chicago” in this way.’”
Senior Rebecca Futterman (Velma Kelly) said her character knows how the ending will turn out, which adds an amusing, heightened layer of spectacle to the production.
“It’s not going to be watching ‘Electra’ and its not going to be watching ‘How I Learned to Drive,’” she said. “There’s going to be that feeling of ‘we’re putting on a show.’ There’ll be a lot of breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience, which is really fun ultimately.”
From the jazz-inspired choreography to the addition of a master of ceremonies who presents Velma and Roxie’s pasts as a story of greed and corruption, Bostwick said he wants to remind the audience that they’re at a show.
Though the purpose of “Chicago” is to take the audience on an entertaining time-warp through the Vaudevillian period, Bostwick said the message lies in what Billy Flynn, Roxie’s lawyer, tells Roxie before her trial — “it’s all a three-ring circus.” The show portrays the heart of performance as an aspect of everyday life.
“You would think the justice system is a protocol in which appearances are swept aside, and you’re trying to get at the truth,” Bostwick said. “And that very event, a trial, becomes the epitome of image projection.”
Audience members can expect an unprecedented ending to the college’s production that makes it completely different from the movie or Broadway version. Senior Megan Watt, who plays Roxie Hart, said the surprise ending of the show within a show set against the extravagant backdrop of the roaring ’20s doesn’t glorify the women’s schemes like the movie does.
“The ’20s jazz and liquor and booze and men — it’s an unsustainable life, and that says a lot about today,” she said. “You can’t live your life in one way and not think about the consequences, because there are always consequences. The depression always comes; the recession always comes.”
The production is part of the Ithaca College All-Theater Reunion, a weekend that will bring theater alumni back to Ithaca for the rededication of Dillingham after its two-year renovation.
Along with inviting alumni to see the show and building, the department invited four alumni who have worked on Broadway shows to design the set, lights, sound and costumes.
Junior Danny Lindgren (Billy Flynn) said he has complete faith that the technical elements will enhance the story because the designers bring a level of professionalism to rehearsals.
“I’m always confident in what this college can produce but having alumni that have already had this education and more education in the real world, I feel like it’s going to be that much more special that this production is happening,” he said.
Bostwick said the production process has allowed students to work with successful professionals and the alumni designers to give back to the department.
“It brings Broadway to Ithaca,” Bostwick said. “It’s like IC to Broadway to IC. It’s a great privilege and an honor to work with people who are so successful.”
Sound designer Tony Meola ’76, who was presented with the 2010 Edgar “Dusty” Bredbenner Jr. ’50 Distinguished Alumni Award that recognizes service to the college since graduation, has more than 20 Broadway credits. He said he has enjoyed mentoring students at the college that gave him the education he needed to pursue his career.
“Whenever I drive into Ithaca, I’m faced with this huge time marker,” he said. “I look at all those window cards in the lobby, and I see how many are mine. And it’s the accomplishment that I sense but it’s also I think about what I thought about when I was here and how I never imagined that I’d get this far.”
Bostwick said walking across the stage and seeing the effort of students and alumni working to bring “Chicago” to life has been humbling.
“There are so many people working to create this story that is meant primarily to reach out to the alumni to say, ‘Hi. We welcome you back, we’re proud of what you have done and we hope you’re proud of what we’re doing right now, and we’re continuing a tradition of excellence that you guys were a part of,’” he said.