NEWBURYPORT — Newburyport High School’s Drama department will open the curtains on John Kander’s classic musical “Chicago” on Friday. Directors Lisa Zaleski and Stephanie Williams have created what promises to be a nearly unprecedented spectacle for the school.
“Chicago” has been a beloved Broadway staple since its debut in 1975. Based on a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, the show follows Roxie Hart (AnnieKate Gross), a chorus girl in Prohibition-era Chicago. When Roxie murders her lover (Jogirdas Vainauskas), she and corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn (Kyle McIntire) use vaudevillian tricks to turn the trial into a public show and propel her into the limelight.
The play’s score borrows heavily from the period’s popular jazz styles, according to Brian Nickerson, who co-directed the music with Zaleski.
“The vaudeville music has the really cartoony jazz style to it: very upbeat, very ‘note-y,’” Nickerson said. “This is that really old-fashioned, flying, swinging jazz.”
That swinging jazz is complemented by the dancing styles of legendary choreographer Bob Fosse. Fosse’s angular-yet-balletic touch also influenced “Cabaret” and “Damn Yankees.”
Beyond the razzle-dazzle of lights and dancing lies a smart, period satire about corruption during Prohibition times, according to Williams.
“It was basically a social commentary on the corruption of the legal system,” she said. “People would commit crimes and could wiggle their way out of them depending on the press’s opinion and what they got the public to believe.”
The playwright of the non-musical original, Watkins, was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Covering a series of 1920s trials in which beautiful women murdered their husbands or lovers, Watkins noticed that the all-male juries were easily manipulated by attractive defendants. She wrote “Chicago” in protest.
Newburyport’s production of “Chicago” comes after a four-year fight to secure performance rights, with three consecutive applications being denied.