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Director Jeff Teague on Chicago’s near sell-out in Claremont

March 20, 2011

Jeff Teague believes the musical Chicago speaks to audiences because the book and music reflect how we relate to celebrities. “In Chicago, they’re all criminals yet we sensationalize them.  It’s very much tongue in cheek. The parallel is, in real life, we deal with people like Britney Spears – we were more interested in her personal problems than her artistry.” 

Tomasina Abate as Velma

And that’s the focus of IVRT‘s Chicago, a work based on two actual murder cases in the 1920s. The women, accused of killing their husbands, became celebrities. Maurine Dallas Walker reported on the cases in the daily press. Years later, she became a born-again Christian and wanted nothing to do with fictionalizing the story. It wasn’t until after her death in 1969 that her estate sold the rights of the play to Bob Fosse and, through book and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, several unforgettable characters were born:  Velma Kelly, Roxie Hart, Amos Hart, Billy Flynn, Matron “Mama” Morton, and reporter Mary Sunshine. 

As for casting a piece of musical theatre so familiar to many, Teague says, “It’s deceivingly simple as for what the audience sees, but it’s very difficult. You’re not necessarily looking for actors who have a typical Broadway style about their vocals and acting. This is a show of rough edges. Instead of rounding them out like in Oklahoma!, you encourage people to stand out. You look to see if they have the vocal range and are age appropriate.” 

The greater challenge, he says, is finding actress who can play Roxie and Velma as polar opposites, “Yet work together at end of show in their sister act. They also need to have quirky qualities about them.” 

Andrianne Hampton as Roxie

Teague hired Tomasina Abate as Velma and Adrianne Hampton as Roxie. Physically, they’re opposites (Velma, dark haired; Hampton, blond, shorter and slighter). Teague, who’s choreographed and directed previous runs of Chicago, says, “I’m most pulled in when there are people with extreme quirkiness. A little kooky, on the edge. But it needs to be natural.” And that’s what he believes he found with Abate and Hampton. 

Teague told me after opening night he would tweak the ending for subsequent shows. “I’ve read in a lot of research materials you’re supposed to walk away feeling sort of empty and that the ending is anti-climactic. In the revival they added a little tag, something that makes the show go full circle. Without it, I think the audience gets a little confused, so I’m adding the ending of All That Jazz.” 

By way of disclosure, I sit on the board of the producing company, Inland Valley Repertory Theatre (IVRT). The show has sold out its three Wednesday evening performances, but some tickets remain for this Wednesday’s afternoon matinee at the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont. The treat for me, opening night, was R.C. Sands’ performance as Mary Sunshine. Sands has a voice – and control over it – you rarely hear. 

The cast includes Mike Eberhardt (Amos Hart), Robert Hoyt (Billy Flynn) and Joanne Juliet Lapoint (Matron Mama Morton). Directed by Jeff Teague, assisted by Hope Kaufman. Frank Minano is Producing Artistic Director. Ticket information or 909-626-1254 ext 1 ($25 matinee, $28 evening).

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