Dark Horse CompanyTheatre is about to razzle dazzle Utah audiences with a darkly comical tale of "murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery -- all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts."
Those words open a rare production of "Chicago," the Tony Award-winning musical about two killer divas by composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb and director/choreographer Bob Fosse. The Dark Horse production of the famed musical opens Friday, July 6, for a four-weekend run at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City.
The theater company was founded by WSU graduates Daniel Simons and wife Ginger Bess, who is also starring as Roxie Hart in the show. The cast also includes several former and current WSU musical theater students, including Dark Horse co-owner/producer Gamry Worf, who said the wickedly fun "Chicago" knows how to entertain -- despite its focus on some rather seedy characters.
"They are so charismatic in the way that they are presenting themselves that you are rooting for them, even though they are despicable," Worf said. "It's a commentary on how society continues to respond to acts of infamy."
The show starts off with a bang, Worf said, with perhaps its most famous number, "All That Jazz."
"That sultry cabaret introduction to the whole story is so fun and kind of sets the tone for the entire piece," Worf said.
The intimate nature of the Park City theater with its cabaret seating in front of the stage is ideal for the sizzling musical, Simons said.
"It's a really strong dance show with every tune being super catchy," Simons said. "It's got lots of big production numbers ... it's a unique premise of these killer women in jail."
Written in 1975, the musical has remained popular thanks to a 1996 Broadway revival that is still running and the 2002 Academy Award-winning movie. Simons said Dark Horse secured the rights to produce the musical after two previous attempts to stage the show.
"It's a pretty exclusive show," Simons said. "They know it's a hit. It sells well and it's a fantastic show, so they guard the rights pretty tightly."
The story revolves around Roxie, a nightclub dancer who dreams of starring on vaudeville. After Roxie kills her lover, she convinces her husband, Amos, played by WSU graduate Andrew Nadon, to front the money to hire Billy Flynn -- Chicago's shrewdest and ethically challenged defense lawyer. While Roxie awaits her fate in jail, she competes for attention from the press with Velma Kelly, a sassy nightclub performer who murdered both her husband and her sister after she found them in bed together.
"We're kind of attracted to these larger-than-life pieces of trash out there, and that's kind of what this story is about," Bess said with a laugh. "It's about her (Roxie) trying to climb her way to the top so that she can get acquitted for murder, but I think mostly she wants to be famous."
I'm a bad girl, I am
Simons had originally planned to direct "Chicago," but an emergency appendectomy in May forced the company to look for other options to take some of the pressure off of him.
Enter Salt Lake City actress and director Anne Stewart Mark, who stepped in as director and has close emotional ties to the show. She starred as Roxie in a Theatre 138 production of the musical in the early 1980s in Salt Lake City and met her husband while she was appearing in that show.
Mark said she has tried to remain true to Simons' original vision of the show, which she said is similar to the 1996 revival of the musical on Broadway starring Bebe Neuwirth, famous for playing Frasier Crane's TV wife Lilith on "Cheers" and "Frasier," and choreographer/actress Ann Reinking, famous for being Bob Fosse's real-life protege and lover.
The musical is based on a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a Chicago reporter of the 1920s era who based the characters in her play on actual events. Watkins' story skewers the press for sensationalizing the murders and turning the women she covered into celebrities.
Although "Chicago" plays out in the era of bootleggers, the Mafia and jazz-age Chicago, Mark said, the story still resonates today because people really haven't changed in what captures and commands their attention.
People are drawn to "Chicago" and stories like it, Mark said, because they are fascinated by "villains we love to hate to love."
"With our fascination with crime, celebrity, and image fabrication of the current scene, Roxie's story plays vibrantly for us as well," Mark said. "We watch her learn that appearance is everything and she need only lie, steal and cheat her way to the top."
Bess likens the characters to today's reality stars or Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton a few years back when the two seemed to be competing for headlines on who could be the baddest girl of them all.
"She (Roxie) is like the Kardashians who want to be famous -- whatever it takes -- and so she is willing to do whatever it takes," Bess said. "She's one of those people who, you give them an inch and they want a mile. It's like, 'Now I've got this, I want even more and more and more.' "
And all the jazz
"Chicago" may be a story about girls gone wild, shady attorneys and a corrupt system, but ultimately it is the music and dance that sends it soaring into the musical theater stratosphere. Simons pointed out that it is currently the longest-running "American" musical on Broadway. Much of that is due to its infectious score and sexy dance numbers
The Dark Horse production is choreographed by WSU student William Richardson, who is also cast in the role of Roxie's lover.
Richardson has created original choreography for the show that is Fosse-esque.
"We definitely wanted there to be elements of Bob Fosse and we wanted it to be reminiscent of Bob Fosse, but we didn't want to copy Bob Fosse," Worf said.
Fosse was famous for his precise, isolated movements, such as the twist of a hand, the turn of a head, the tip of a hat or the bend of a knee. Worf noted the production does include some of Fosse's original choreography in the finale, when Roxie and Velma have been acquitted and they perform together.
"That's some really great stuff that people expect and we didn't want to deny them that," Worf said.
Backed by a nine-piece orchestra, the show also includes several big, frantic dance numbers, including "We Both Reached for the Gun," as the suave Billy Flynn puppeteers an all-too-eager pack of reporters, and "Cell Block Tango," in which the not-so-lady-like prisoners re-enact the murders that landed them in jail.
"I'm ancillary support for all of the stunning females in the cast," said Worf, who in that number plays polygamist Ezekial Young -- "One of those Mormons, you know?" his infuriated wife exclaims in the sexy routine before poisoning him.
" 'Cell Block Tango' will knock everybody's socks off," Bess said, noting it is one of her favorite numbers in the show -- and she's not even in it. But Bess gets her moment in the spotlight in the flashy "Roxie," in which her character begins to realize her growing fame and crave even more.
"I love the 'Roxie' number because there is some dancing and singing and it's me with a bunch of boys, so who wouldn't like that?," Bess said. "I have a good time."