Last night, I joined fairly new friends Fernando and Rick to see “Chicago,” presented by Summer Stock Stage at The Park, the outdoor venue at Phoenix Theatre. The savvy couple, who recently relocated from L.A. to Indy, are knowledgeable about the performing arts, have sophisticated tastes and have seen their share of professional theatre. At intermission, I asked them what they thought of the show and they both agreed they did not expect the high quality they were witnessing in the performances of the high school students in an amateur production. Not that any of those in attendance, including me, needed that validation because anyone who is familiar with SSS knows the company’s artistic product is always first rate and “Chicago” was no exception.
For the uninitiated, “Chicago” with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, is set in Chicago in the Jazz Age. Based on a 1926 play of the same title, written by a crime reporter about actual criminals she covered, the story is a satire of corruption in the criminal justice system. It also explores the concept of the “celebrity criminal,” which is still very timely today and even more relevant in the age of social media.
Seeing the SSS production, I could not help but be reminded of the 1996 Broadway revival of the show, which I saw starring Ann Reinking as Roxie and Bebe Neuwirth as Velma. Over the years, I have lost count of the various other professional, community and educational productions I have seen. A dedicated fan of the show, I never tire of seeing it and fortunately have been spared a production that did not do it justice. The SSS production was no exception. Doing a lot with very little in terms of sets and playing space, utilizing a recorded track as opposed to live music, and despite limited production elements, the SSS players engaged me and the rest of the enthusiastic 275-member audience throughout the two-hour long musical.
Directed by former Indiana Repertory Theatre and Phoenix Theatre actor Carlos Medina Maldonado (currently pursuing an MFA in Performance and Pedagogy at Texas Tech University in Lubbock), it was obvious the exceptional work of the aspiring young artists was informed by Medina Maldonado’s own unique talents as a skilled performer. In addition, Medina Maldonado’s eye for talent is also evident in his casting choices.
I can’t say enough about the polished performances turned in by the show’s leads, all of whom shined individually as the gifted actors-singers-dancers they are. These days, the professional theatre is keen for triple-threats and all these versatile performers, without question, fit the bill. They included Kha’Lea Wainwright as Velma Kelly, Isabel Casciani as Roxie Hart, Jack Ducat as Billy Flynn, Zack Johnson as Amos Hart and Maisey Parker as Matron “Mama” Morton. Highlights of the show were the performances of Wainwright and 15-year-old phenom Casciani in “Nowadays” and “Hot Honey Rag,” Ducat in “All I Care About,” Parker in “When You’re Good to Mama,” and crowd-favorite Johnson in “Mister Cellophane.”
With not one single weak link in the entire cast adorned in Jeanne Bowling’s pitch-perfect costumes, the members of the ensemble showed vibrant presence and conveyed uber-energy, individually and together, in precise synchronicity during production numbers. They included Thomas Bowling, Dominic Bruder, Anna Seitz, Tess Holloway (daughter of SSS co-founder Emily Ristine Holloway and further proof the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree), Kinley Shoemaker, Cora Lucas, Madelyn Matthews, Mallory McKeeman, Keilyn Bryant, Michael Geary and Sam Hulka. Hats off to choreographer Alexandria Van Paris and assistants Brandon Comer and Emily Thomas for overseeing the complex Fosse-inspired dances executed by the young artists.
As far as The Park, the ingenious space the Phoenix created in its parking lot as a COVID-safe outdoor stage for the public to enjoy live entertainment, it has become one of my favorite venues in Central Indiana. With the city’s skyline all lit up after dark, it is an atmosphere that makes the experience of seeing a show all the more captivating, not to mention dramatic (no pun intended).
Speaking of which, near the end of the show, during Roxie and Velma’s climactic number that ends the show, a vivid, gold-colored moon slid into view from behind the Gothic spire of the nearby Scottish Rite Cathedral. The total effect, including what was taking place on stage, was pure magic. Luckily, we all benefit from a collaboration between SSS and the Phoenix, which made the entire experience a high point of my summer, thus far.
SSS’s 2021 summer season ended with “Chicago,” but its college-aged program “Eclipse,” made up of many SSS alums, is presenting “Godspell” August 5-7. Many in the company are students in theatre programs around the county, so the professional caliber of their shows is always outstanding. For tickets, go to summerstockstage.com.