Barter Theatre Brings Us the Classic Musical and All the Hoopla That Comes Along With It.
There are rumors and legend when it comes to Maurine Watkins and how she came to get her job at the Chicago Tribune in 1924. So much time has passed that how she came to have the fifty-dollar a week job, over $683.00 in today’s currency, will never be discovered but one thing is certainly for sure: Watkins parlayed her newspaper job into fame and fortune during one of America’s more raucous times. Maurine was asked to write about the cases of two women, both were on trial for murder, so she showed up every day at the courthouse to watch the trials that had been transformed from run of the mill murder inquiries into front page fodder. Chicago was captivated by the two “beautiful murderesses” and Watkins was no different.
The rise and fall of the celebrity is something that still captivates society today and we are quick to lift celebrities up only to take them down even quicker. What entrances us about the private lives of public figures is a phenomena that scores of psychologists may never figure out, but enamored we are. The cycle of small town girl turned celebrity turned hardened vamp is one that will not likely end soon. What made the crime columns by Watkins so popular at the time was the dripping satire that she wrote them with and the realization that what she, and her readers, was witnessing was real life turned into farce. Two men were dead, two women were on trial, and the scandalous nature of the events was made worse by the attention-grabbing techniques employed by both women: Chicago would never be the same.
The 1975 musical Chicago was inspired by the play that Maurine Watkins wrote and it is as full of the showmanship, absurdity, and shocking scandal as the original trial was. Chicago has become, for many a theatre actor, the pinnacle blend of song and dance and acting; very few plays come close. “It is what every dancer and singer wants to act in,” says Ashley Campos, “to make my comeback to the stage by appearing in Chicago is a dancer’s dream.” Campos, for those who may not know, is a resident Barter actor who is returning from a several year hiatus; time she spent being pregnant and then having her son Max. Campos, who plays Velma Kelly, and her counterpart Roxie Hart, played by Sarah Laughland, both agree that the women play the system in order to win their freedom. “Women at the time were limited in their resources,” Laughland tells me. “Yes,” Campos chimes in, “they used what they had in order to get acquitted: good looks and feminine guile. They used the media as much as the media used them.”
Just as the original women relied on perception in order to win them their respective cases, Chicago has relied on perception since its Broadway premiere in 1975 in order to show audiences the biting humor that comes along with fame. Velma and Roxie must “look the part” in order to win the sympathy of the jury and the press, in fact, the entire courtroom dance must be carefully choreographed so that the lawyer for both women, Billy Flynn, can work his magic. For the production of Chicago at Barter Theatre, as with each production, those behind the scenes giving the audience “a show” are numerous and often go unnoticed. Lighting, sound, wigs, props, and makeup are just a few of the tasks that are taken care of for each production but for anyone who has ever seen or heard of Chicago they know that there are two more elements of utmost importance: costume and dance. In order to get the legendary dance numbers and costumes right, Barter turned to Amanda Aldridge a lifelong dancer and longtime costume designer.
“I have these sketches,” at which point Aldridge points to what look to be index cards with pencil drawings on them, “and I take them with me to New York and just dive into the fabric shops looking for just the right pieces of cloth.” Aldridge takes her shopping trips twice a year: in the sweltering heat of summer and the freezing cold of late winter. The large fabric shops that she visits, many of which have joined together in order to keep from going out of business, are either oppressively hot or obscenely cold two conditions she has learned to shop in. “I have to find my fabrics. I only get to fabric shop in New York twice a year so I have to make sure that I get everything we need for the upcoming season.” Aldridge plays double duty with Chicago since she is both costume designer and choreographer, two roles that she relishes getting to do with a musical of this caliber. “I have loved working with the actors on the dance numbers.” In fact, Aldridge comments, she and Assistant to the Choreographer and Dance Captain Josh Levinson, had stayed after rehearsal on several occasions to work on routines. “Oh it was the best experience,” she exclaims, “what started out as just a few minutes of work ended up being several hours of dancing with each other in front of the mirrors. We played off each other and came up with new ideas and steps and worked out some kinks!” The grin on her face tells the story of a woman in love with dance, Amanda Aldridge has been at the craft since the wee age of three, and a woman enthralled with the creative process.
“The costumes,” she tells me, “should help tell the story. The famous dance scene, Cell Block Tango, is a perfect example. Our dancers go from humble to show stopping in the blink of an eye. The costumes have to do the same so we designed dresses, easy to dance in, which use zips and snaps to add and remove pieces in the blink of an eye. Just pull a zipper and voila, the women go from plain to dazzling.” So much work goes into a production as big as Chicago that everyone has to come together in a manner befitting the spirit of theatre: everyone works together for the success of the show. “There are no actors with big heads here,” Amanda tells me, “and that is what I love so much about Barter. New York has entire productions built around just one actor or actress, but here, someone who played the lead in one play is just a background character in another; and happy to do so.” The story is what is important and the idea that popular Barter resident actors would perform back-up roles is something that runs counter to the story that Chicago tells, but maybe that is the best part. “There is such a sense of community here,” Aldridge tells me before we part, “and we work as a team and collaborate meaning no one person is getting in the way of the story and that’s what makes Barter so successful after all these years: the story gets told.” Good stories are what keep audiences coming back to Barter Theatre year after year, because long after we may have forgotten an actor or a tune or a line; the story sticks with us and becomes ours and ours alone.