The warm evening sun is beating down upon the large, white building. The silhouette of a young woman dances past the open doorway, her long, dark brown hair falling behind her as she fills the air with Prohibition-era melodies while wearing a black dress with fishnet stockings and vibrant red lipstick.
Sounds of Broadway emanate from the substantial open-concept room, its walls lined with actors and actresses, absorbing the dancers’ moves as they rehearse for the big show. Valley Vocal Arts and Big Apple Productions present Chicago, the longest running American musical in Broadway history, June 15-24 at Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre.
As the rehearsal quiets into a pause, a group of actors step out into the BX sun, allowing another cast to begin practising.
“It’s kind of cool, because people who don’t necessarily know theatre know the show,” says Craig Howard, who plays Billy Flynn in Cast Ebb.
The production is split into two casts: Cast Kander and Cast Ebb, named after original Chicago musician John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.
“With a double cast, it’s like every night is opening night,” says Vicki Proulx — who plays Velma in Cast Kander — as she leans against the white building.
The double cast operates on an every other night rotation, with Cast Kander performing June 15, 17, 21, and 23, to Cast Ebb’s June 16, 18, 22, and 24.
“You get to see someone else’s perspective,” Howard says of performing in a double-cast production.
Sitting between Howard and Proulx on the wooden steps of the Valley Vocal Arts building is Melaney Campbell, who plays Roxie in Cast Ebb, and she agrees.
“It’s humbling, seeing somebody else take a character another way,” Campbell says.
Moreover, seeing another performer’s portrayal of the same character can help the actor/actress form their own take on the role.
“I’ve learned more (from) this one than any other,” says Karen Bliss, who plays the corrupt matron Mama Morton at Cook County Jail in Cast Kander.
As Bliss, Campbell, Proulx, and Howard discuss Chicago, the singing and music resume inside the adjacent building.
“This is definitely the most we’ve taken on with a show,” Proulx says.
Campbell glances at Proulx and agrees.
“Singing and dancing at the same time is very difficult,” she says. “There’s always room for improvement. But when there’s an audience, if you’re a performer, you turn it on. There’s nothing like it. You have the opportunity to recreate yourself every night.”
“With live theatre, anything can happen and you just have to roll with it,” she says.
It will be their first triple-threat show.
“Every show is different, like a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Proulx says.
“The adrenaline rush when you hear the reaction, a strong start becomes an amazing experience,” Howard adds.
“It’s a completely different experience having it live in your face. (But) the movie musical, at that time, had some of the biggest stars in Hollywood.”
Chicago originally opened on Broadway in 1975. It was adapted into a popular Hollywood film in 2002, and won six Academy Awards in 2003.
”Chicago has been on my radar for the last five years, but the show has been restricted, meaning the rights to perform it have not been available to anyone except the Broadway touring production,” says Melina Moore, founder and director of Valley Vocal Arts and Big Apple Productions. “Each year, I would hopefully apply, and each year, I would get the same rejection email. When the licence was finally granted to me last August, I knew this would be in our 2017 season.”
But bringing a world-renowned performance to Vernon does not come without difficulty.
“The show has major challenges in that we are working with a six-piece live jazz band, the choreography requirements are the most complex of any show we’ve ever done, and the general public has its pre-conceived notions of the show from the 2002 movie starring Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones,” Moore says. “I loved this movie so much — I went to the theatre 13 times to see it. I’m always so grateful when Broadway shows are turned into movie musicals because it raises so much awareness of the show and its music. However, in the case of Chicago, the movie version and the stage version are very different. The general plot is the same but the stage show has many additional songs, other characters and some big twists.”
But the cast and crew is excited for the opportunity.
“This is a dream of mine to play this character on this stage. You’re a little piece of Vernon history,” Proulx says, adding that it will be the debut of Chicago in Vernon.
Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, the performance follows the trial of two murderous principle characters, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, and their battle for vaudevillian limelight.
“It’s dark, but it’s still fun,” Campbell says.
Velma and Roxie stop at nothing in their quest for headlines, and it’s a theme that the cast feels is more relevant than ever given America’s current political climate.
“I think it’s pretty timely,” Proulx says.
“The two murderers are the living examples of what America is,” she says.
But for the cast and crew, it’s all about putting on a memorable production and paying homage to the classic Broadway production.
“My goal with Chicago and every show I produce and direct is simple: I want to bring the highest calibre theatre to our small community so people can experience what great theatre is without having to travel to New York, Toronto, or even Vancouver,” Moore says. “I want the incredible tradition of the Broadway musical to be honored and to be kept alive and well here in our small town of Vernon. I work 365 days a year for this, for a dream. I don’t take days off — I question everything I do on a daily basis, but it’s all worth it when that curtain rises on opening night and I know we’ve created something unforgettable for cast, crew, and audiences alike.”
“With how much work and toil we put in, half of us go home full of doubt. But we do it because we love it.”
Big Apple Productions and Valley Vocal Arts present Chicago at the Powerhouse Theatre June 15-24. Cast Kander performs June 15, 17, 21, and 23, to Cast Ebb’s June 16, 18, 22, and 24. All shows at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available for $36.50 from the Ticket Seller, 250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.