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.
“The students were so excited that we finally got the chance,” Zaleski said. “It’s got a reputation that they knew. I think some of the students who wouldn’t have otherwise participated in the musical said, ‘You’re doing ‘Chicago’? Sign me up!’”
“Chicago” required an big investment in costumes, sets and lighting. Working with a lean budget, the department turned to auctions, ad sales in the program and VIP seating to cover the difference.
“We had very little a couple of months ago,” Zaleski said. “This year, we’re literally day-by-day ... literally in the last two days, things are starting to fall into place.”
“If we get an ad sale for $100, that means, ‘great, we can get that tuxedo,’” Williams explained. “Otherwise, he was gonna be in something that still smelled like mothballs.”
Even parents have been enlisted, according to stage manager Cameron Cyr, a junior. Several parents worked on weekends to construct a catwalk that encircles the pit band and reaches into the audience.
“We are so thankful for the parents we have,” Cyr said. “One of the dancers, their dad designed it all ... The catwalk is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen happen to the stage!”
The show has also been an opportunity for growth among the school’s actors, according to female lead AnnieKate Gross, who plays Roxie Hart.
“Before, I’ve played really innocent characters,” Gross, a sophomore, said. “This is my first character that has a dark side to her, a little bit of a sassy side ... It’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever played.”
The interwoven dialogue and music presented the biggest challenge for sophomore Jogirdas Vainauskas (Fred Casely).
“I have to wait for a specific drum, then speak, then there’s a rattle and speak, so every moment in that scene has to wait for different things,” he said.
Roxie’s main rival for the limelight, Velma Kelly (junior Maria Manning), was also battling the music in her first major role.
“There’s a lot of solo singing pieces, so I’ve definitely had to work on my voice and try to make it better,” Manning said. “I’ve had to memorize the songs and I’ve got a lot more lines.”
But one actor will be using the fictional spectacle of “Chicago” to get a real-life spotlight: senior Kyle McIntire, playing the sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn, will be moving on the Boston Conservatory after graduating.
“I’ve always been a singer and actor,” McIntire said. “It wasn’t until high school that I realized I was good at it and could try to make a living at it.”
Newburyport High School’s “Chicago” will play on May 9, 10 and 15-17 at 7 p.m. in the school’s auditorium. Tickets are $8 for students, $12 for adults and $15 for reserved center-section seating.
For $25, VIP tickets guarantee seating in the front two rows and come with a complimentary concessions ticket and a picture with the cast after the show.