BWW Review: Taylor Tarver Is Off The Charts Fantastic in Steinbrenner High School Theatre Department's Wonderful Production of Kander & Ebb's CHICAGO
"Why would a high school ever do CHICAGO?" someone once asked me. "It deals with two women celebrated for murder, and it doesn't seem appropriate. There will be plenty of chances for these kids to do CHICAGO in the future; let them do it then."
Now that there is a "High School Version" of CHICAGO, the show seems ubiquitous, playing in high school auditoriums and cafetoriums everywhere across the country. I saw a version at a private school in Tampa just last March, and now, less than two months later, here's another at Steinbrenner High School that ended its run last Saturday, April 27th. And for the record, I disagree with the statement in the opening paragraph that it's inappropriate for high school; middle school, maybe, but not high school. (Please, for any middle school yearning to do CHICAGO, how will an unedited "Cell Block Tango" look featuring a group of 11-year-olds as "Pop," "Six", "Squish," "Uh uh," etc.; that would be even more uncomfortable than the elementary school version of Sweeney Todd in Jersey Girl.)
CHICAGO is John Kander and Fred Ebb's most famous work (nowadays at least, barely budging Cabaret out of that coveted slot). What makes the musical so universal--and why so many theatre companies and now schools want to do it--is that, though it's set during the Jazz Age, it reflects whatever time it's being performed in. In its original run, in the 1970's, it was a Fosse-esque exploration of the darker side of show biz, a cynical work for cynical times. In the 1990's, with its revival, it became a reflection of celebrity culture where criminals became the top tabloid fodder (this was the age of OJ, Amy Fisher, and Tonya Harding). And now, with the show more popular than ever, it's become a story of female empowerment ripe for the #MeToo era. The fascinating thing is, the musical hasn't really changed; the times have. It's rare outside of Shakespeare to find a work that so easily evolves like this.
Lindsay Warfield, the talented director of CHICAGO, has guided Steinbrenner's award-winning theatre department for a decade, since its inception. She is also the State Chapter Director of Florida Thespians and runs the world's largest youth festival. (You haven't lived until you've been in Tampa during a state Thespian festival, where thousands upon thousands of budding actors and actresses infiltrate the entire downtown area; it's exhilarating and heartening seeing so many youths so passionate about the performing arts.) On top of all of her duties at the state level, Warfield somehow finds the time to run one of the area's top-flight high school drama programs and directs their productions. As evident with her work on CHICAGO, she certainly knows what she's doing and how to guide young actors to give their best performances.
And Warfield obviously has the cast to do this high school version of CHICAGO right.
It immediately became clear that this would be one hell of a show when I saw the fine orchestra rightfully sitting on the Art Deco stage, dressed in CHICAGO attire. The music starts and the ensemble assembles, donning Fosse black and warming up to the opening of "And All That Jazz," each one in character, each one doing their bit of pre-show business. And then they position themselves for Velma's entrance...and a stunning Taylor Tarver as Velma enters and sings the opening lines to that iconic number: "C'mon, babe, why don't we paint the town...and all that jazz!" And that was it.
I wrote the following in my notebook: "Velma = Wow!"
Ms. Tarver is spellbinding as the sultry murderess Velma Kelly, and of all of the CHICAGO performances that I have seen (and I've seen many, including on Broadway), she certainly ranks as one of the top Velma's. This young performer has "it," the X Factor, that extra something that causes the molecules in the room to change whenever she enters the stage. Acting, singing, dancing, and stage presence are out of this world. No matter how many people may be crowding that stage, you can't help but watch her. What she has is what separates a true star turn from a mere earthly delight. I can't wait to see what the future has in store for her off-the-charts talents.
Avery Hall makes for a fine Roxie Hart. In her blonde wig, she looks like a floozy Jean Harlow, a homicidal Gwen Stefani. She really comes into her own in her big number, "Roxie," supported by fourteen very able young male dancers. Only at the end, during her "Hot Honey Rag" duet with Velma, does she look like she loses some energy. But Ms. Hall is the perfect foil for Ms. Tarver, and they play off each other quite well in "My Own Best Friend."
As the slicker than slick lawyer, Billy Flynn, Jaden Waz nails the character's smarmy cynicism. With his charming crocodile smile, he looks like the odd synthesis of a young Leonardo DiCaprio mixed with a buoyant Ryan Reynolds. And boy can he sing! He holds a note (the "the") in "We Both Reached for the Gun" for a seeming eternity. Best of all, he catches the bullet-fast comedic patter of the time period and knows exactly when to hold for a laugh. Mr. Waz may be just a high school sophomore, but he acts with a professionalism twice his age.
Equally as good is Grant Sparr's Amos Hart, Roxie's nerdy husband. Imagine a downtrodden Bill Gates merged with Wally Cox, and you'll get an idea of theatre's most pathetic nebbish. His "Mr. Cellophane" is the showstopper of Act 2, beautifully realized complete with white gloves and tons of pathos. When Amos finally gets his big exit, head down to the sound of silence, the audience sympathetically applauded. In a universe of razzle dazzle, Sparr's Amos keeps us grounded.
The rest of the cast works well. Samantha Sanchez sings well as Matron "Mama" Morton. Zach West makes for a formidable Fred Casely (he's like a hulking bodybuilder compared to Hall's comparatively diminutive Roxie). Velma and the "Cell Block Tango" girls--including Audrey Hegwood, Edelsa Perez, Hailey Mills, and Elle Mourant--are quite good. Special mention must go to Yalexi Miro for especially owning the stage as Liz ("Pop" in the song). Karl Hines is powerful as the announcer, and Emily Stephens and Kosey Griffith stand out in several of the ensemble numbers.
Although Maggie Losier is fine enough as reporter Mary Sunshine, I question why a guy in drag didn't play the role (as is usually the case, with the exception of the 2002 film). As it stands, head to toe in a black dress and hat, the ironically-named Mary Sunshine looks more like a widow in mourning than a cut-throat reporter.
Kudos to the entire cast, right down to the smallest part of the large ensemble: Nicholas Gonzalez, Ben Lazaro, Olivia Elza, Naren Goulas, Ethan Zimmerman, Krista Killburg, Sianna VanBuskirk, Alexis Castillo, Mary Boyle, Verity Goulas, Evan Sizemore, Michael Zinn, Joseph Raberkenny, Mason Fleska, Cayla Soris, Kaylize Candelario, Casidy Hale, Natalie Bello, Christian Aquino, Keria Wilkerson, Arianna Toro, Jacob Tucci, Gianna Silvest, Jon Gudmundsson, Noe Figueira and Andre Garboza.
Corey Poole's musical direction is spot on, with voices sounding incredibly strong. The band, conducted by Jason Algair, was tight and, being onstage, really helped elevate the atmosphere of the show: Justin Boyles, Dalia McCloud, Jack Stewart, Elizabeth Kennedy, John Pereira, and Samuel Gamez on reed; Sarah Reinecke, Eston Overbey, Cole Padeni, Tony Rull, and Michael Van Den Broeke on trumpet; Dominic Frantz, Aryn Nester and Kyle Wilson on trombone; Gregory Cox on tuba; Gabriel Gilvary on and savannah Alger on keyboards; Caroline Goodman on bass; Holden D'Tarando on banjo; Cole Aiken and Garrett Young on drums; and Gina Passarella, Mariana Passarella, and Kaylee Price on violin.
Nicholas Wood, Jr.'s choreography was lively, gutsy at points, and involved EVERYONE in the ensemble at various times. When I saw so many boys dancing up there--and not just a hand full, which is what we usually get in high school shows--I knew that we were watching something special.
There are plusses and minuses to the High School Edition of CHICAGO. The major plus is that it moves so incredibly quick and is never dull. That said, sometimes it unfortunately swish pans too quickly at the expense of characterization and depth. The show whirls by at such a rapid rate that it seems like a Kander & Ebb greatest hits showcase rather than a full musical theatre performance.
There were some minor mic issues on the day I saw the show, but nothing that took away from the experience. Carlos Rodriquez's costumes are appropriate in their salute to Bob Fosse. The multi-level, Deco-inspired set, designed by Randall Delone Adkison, is purposely no-frills and certainly works for the presentational style of this musical (where most of the props were mimed). The set acts as sort of a playground; it allows these Steinbrenner High School dynamos to really show-off their talents and create a truly wonderful experience.
If you ever worry about the future, then do yourself a favor and see a high school show like Steinbrenner's CHICAGO. It will work wonders and, best of all, give you so much hope for the future.