April 05, 2017
By Angye Morrison
Step back in time to Prohibition-era Chicago, when the jazz was hot, and the dancers even hotter. It’s a world of crooked lawyers and criminals. Based on a 1926 play about the era, the story told in “Chicago” follows the trial of Roxie Hart, who has been accused of the murder of her lover. The events unfold through song and dance, styled after the burlesque houses of the 1920s.
The original production opened in 1975, with Bob Fosse choreographing. His style, which featured turned-in knees, sideways shuffling, rolled shoulders and jazz hands, was featured heavily in the show, and it’s become synonymous with the production. Fosse won Tony and Academy Awards for his work in “Pippin” and “Cabaret,” as well as “Chicago.”
Mathyn Miller is the dance choreographer for the Statesboro production, which opens at Georgia Southern University Performing Arts Center on April 27. The owner, artistic director and choreographer at Technique Dance Company, Miller said she kept all of the choreography in Fosse’s well-known and stylized form, with some of her own flair added in.
Casting the show was not difficult, Miller said. What was hard was not casting everyone who showed up to audition.
“We had a wonderful turnout,” she said. “It’s always hard when you can only take 16 dancers max, but I knew what I was looking for in each dancer, and we had a fairly easy time casting.”
For Miller, the greatest challenge so far has been the amount of dances that are in the show.
“Choreographing more than 10 dances is always a challenge, but I have loved every minute of it,” she said.
Miller said the audience has a lot to look forward to in this production – and that it’s not about one number over another – it’s a big picture kind of thing.
“I think choreography-wise the best thing the audience can look forward to is not necessarily one thing, but as a whole, all of the pieces. I think they can look forward to being entertained with all of the partner work, such as lifts and turns, as well as how each piece really tells a story with the fluid movements and at some times, surprising moments. I feel like there are a lot of wow factors to look forward to,” she said.
This cast is special, Miller added.
“They are all amazing triple threats. What I have found most special is how well they all work together as a group and at how quickly they have picked up this difficult choreography. I have had such an amazing time working with each and every one of them. They are determined, hard workers, when it comes to memorizing and perfecting the dances,” she said.
Two of those dancers are Hannah Hogan and Kelsey Poole. Hogan is playing the part of Velma Kelly, while Poole tackles the role of Roxie Hart.
Both young women say they have found playing the roles challenging, and they are approaching the characters after studying who the women are.
“I think we’ve all done research on who our character is and how we can embody her better. One of the things that I did was I got a little bottle of perfume that it says that Velma wears, so I can kind of get into her character better,” Hogan said.
Poole says she’s found that tackling the turns in the dances has been her biggest challenge, while Hogan says the fast-paced singing and dancing has been hers.
Both have dance in their backgrounds – Poole, who is a senior at GSU, has experience as a hip-hop dancer, and as an actor as well, but not in musicals.
“This is all very different for me. The singing and dancing at the same time, it’s quite difficult,” she said.
Freshman Hogan started dance when she was 2 years old, and has danced competitively since she was 5. She says she got into musical theater in high school, and studied in New York for two months as well.
As for what the audience can look forward to in the production, both women are somewhat tightlipped, but they enthusiastically encourage people to come.
“(Our characters) go through a lot of emotions. You get to see the actors go through their weakest moments, and then their proudest moments. These characters are so dynamic,” Hogan said.
Poole agrees, and says the show will be funny and highly entertaining.
“All of us are amazing singers and dancers. It’s just a good time. It’s very different from the usual show you see at Georgia Southern. It’s a little edgy,” she said.
When you ask director Lisa Abbott about the cast, she echoes the sentiments expressed by Poole and Hogan.
“This cast is awesome because each and every one of them is a triple threat (singer/dancer/actor) and it is rare to get that lucky,” she said.
Abbott said she felt auditions were a tough process, and she added that dance ended up being the determining factor because the nature of the show requires it to be.
As for the show being edgy, Abbott disagreed with Poole.
“I would not say that this is in any way edgier than what we normally do. We select shows that challenge our audience’s view on all sorts of topics in many ways all the time. I think in some ways it is safer because it is so stylized in terms of the manner in which sexuality and violence is presented,” she said.
Collaborating with Miller and Josh Cook, music director for the show, is something that Abbott said is one of the great things about the production of a musical.
“Josh has a very low key way of working that gets amazing work out of singers and Mathyn and I have worked together several times. We like the same aesthetic and I can take a dance she has created and build on it in blocking or make suggestions as she is working, very much of a give and take,” she said. “Chicago is so well known, and therefore people have some clear expectations. I don’t think you need to reinvent the show. We are playing it grittier than the film, but are staying fairly true to the elements of the Bob Fosse choreography while avoiding the sparseness of the recent Broadway revival.”
Abbott says the audience can expect great singing, dancing, acting, costumes and sets.
“You name it,” she said. “I think we regularly do high quality shows here at GSU and I look forward to having a larger audience as a result of the PAC space.”
See “Chicago” April 27-30, at 7:30 p.m. each evening at GSU’s Performing Arts Center. General admission tickets can be purchased online for $20 each at www.georgiasouthern.edu. Student tickets are $10, and faculty and staff tickets are $17. The production is for mature audiences.