By Gail McCarthy
---- — A story that made newspaper headlines nearly a century ago and has ripped up stages around the globe comes to Cape Ann next week.
The Annisquam Village Players opens its musical production “Chicago” in Gloucester next Tuesday.
Maurine Dallas Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter, wrote about two unrelated murders in 1924, in which two women, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, were suspects. One was a cabaret singer accused of killing her lover and the other accused of killing her husband. Watkins wrote a play about the cases two years later, which ran on Broadway. The story evolved as it became a silent movie, a romantic comedy film, and a Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical, which inspired the 2002 Academy Award-winning film of the same name, which took the Best Picture prize.
Now one of the oldest community theater troupes in the country is bringing its own magic and special effects to the show, which is set in Prohibition-era Chicago. A satire on corruption in the criminal justice system, the story evokes the idea of the “celebrity criminal.”
The show features newcomers and long-time members of the acting troupe, including educators, businessmen, and children who play “newsies,” who are selling newspapers on the streets. The songs sport the titles “Cell Block Tango,” “All that Jazz” and “Razzle Dazzle,” with dances choreographed by Donna “Deej” Viau.
In his day job, Terry Sands, one of the directors, just happens to be a land court judge. He, along with Mary Curtis, are orchestrating the nearly 30 actors, singers and dancers into their own version of “Chicago.”
When Sands applied for the right to produce the show, he soon received an email reply from New York, informing him that only 1 of 30 applications receive the rights.
“So the odds were not good and we started looking at other works,” Sands said. “Two months later, I emailed them back, explaining that we needed an answer so we could plan — and the next morning we got an email that we got it.”
Sands did confess that when the idea was raised to produce “Chicago,” there were some raised eyebrows with Annisquam Village Players board members. However, after long discussions, they agreed the colorful show could be produced in a way that was conducive to the troupe’s tradition.
“Like always, we have a number of families involved, and we are downplaying the violence and sex and playing up the dance. The kids will be awed by the costumes and dance, and the circus scene in the second act is like a real circus,” Sands said. “In the late 1990s, it was the most successful Broadway revival ever, which tells you about the popularity of the show.”
The two female leads are Victoria Fortune of Annisquam, who plays Roxie Hart, and Elizabeth Jelinek of Topsfield who plays Velma Kelly.
Jelinek, a theater major at Salem State College, heard about the audition a bit serendipitously and landed a leading role.
“I was very interested because I love ‘Chicago’ and Velma is one of my favorite characters,” Jelinek said. “It’s such an interesting role to play. Plus ‘Chicago’ is a hard thing to come by because it’s so popular.”
Manchester’s Maida Soehl plays Matron Momma Mortan, made famous in the award-winning film by Queen Latifah.
“She is another dynamo and she gives Queen Latifha a run for her money,” Sands said of Soehl. “The voices we have in the show are pretty amazing.”
Annisquam’s John Merrill is a newcomer playing Billy Flynn, the smooth-talking lawyer who brought celebrity to his clients, hoping to keep them out of prison. (Richard Gere played this role in the film.)
Two teachers at Rockport schools, both of whom are involved in theater productions, have roles; Keith McCarthy plays Amos Hart, Roxie’s simple-minded husband, and Denise Ferazzi plays Liz.
Ferazzi said she is grateful that the Annisquam Village Players provide an outlet for people like her who have a genuine love of the theater arts.
“Everyone involved in the process is a true friend of the arts,” she said. “The show ‘Chicago’ features strong characters, so unlike ourselves in their deviousness, that it is a real treat as an actor to explore such parts.”
Sands is an obvious choice for the role of the judge during the trial scene, which is a large part of the second act. Other notable actors who appear on stage include City Council Vice President Sefatia Romeo, who has more than a cameo — as is tradition with the local politicians who always appear — when she takes on the role of Go-to-Hell-Kitty, a woman who murders her lover and is thrown in jail with Roxie and Velma. State Sen. Bruce Tarr will be the arresting officer.
As Sands worked on this show, he said he couldn’t help but be reminded of the daily news headlines regarding four-high profile cases, three which were in Boston — the Whitey Bulger trial, murder suspect and former Patriot Aaron Hernandez, and the marathon bombing suspect, in addition to the George Zimmerman trial in Florida.
“All of them involve murder and the press went crazy covering all these cases,” said Sands. “And the Bulger trial has been called a three-ring circus and I am reminded of this when we do our courtroom scene.”
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3445, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go Who and what: The Annisquam Village Players presents "Chicago." When: Tuesday, Aug. 6, through Sunday, Aug. 11; All performances at 7:30 p.m. Where: Annisquam Village Hall at 36 Leonard St. in Gloucester. How much: Reserved seating is $32, and general admission is $16. For more information and tickets, visit www.annisquamvillageplayers.com. General admission tickets may be purchased at the Annisquam Exchange and The Bookstore, both in Gloucester, and at Lula's Pantry in Rockport. WHO'S WHO IN THE CAST Rebecca Blomberg (Mona); David Cluett (Fred Casely, Harry, "Cell Block Tango" male dancer, Roxie boy, news reporter); Emily Corrao (newsie); Rachael Corrao (newsie); Rachel Denney (fan dancer and reporter); Denise Ferazzi (Liz); Denby Fortune (newspaper kid); Talman Fortune (reporter, dancer, chorus); Victoria Fortune (Roxie Hart); Elizabeth Jelinek (Velma Kelly); Ashley Kaner (Annie); Marisa Kobus (Hunyak); John Merrill (Billy Flynn). Deborah Michel (June); Tom Moriarty (one of Roxie's boys); Carly Moulton (fan dancer, reporter); Keith McCarthy (Amos); Liam McCarthy (ensemble); Greg Neal (Sergeant Fogarty, Aaron); Charlie Rousmaniere (newsie); Julia Rousmaniere (newsie); Will Rousmaniere (Roxie boy); Rob Russell (MC, band leader); Julia Silveira (fan dancer, reporter); Maida Soehl (Matron Momma Morton); Evy Stewart (reporter, clerk, bailiff); Molly Twombly (fan dancer, acrobat, newsie); Deirdre White (Mary Sunshine) and Anna Zerilli (newsie). BEHIND THE SCENES Mary Curtis, co-director; Jane Deering, Linette French, Kathryn "Chicki" Hollett, set designers; Christopher Lawnsby, music director; Gloria St.Hilaire Martin, costume chairwoman; Kristina Martin, choral director; Seania McCarthy, production manager; Shaun McNiff, Stevie Neal, John Newcomer, Lia Parisi, stage managers; Alexander "Terry" H. Sands III, director; Donna "Deej" Viau, choreographer; and Sarah Wilkins, tickets.