WEST WARWICK — Crime, corruption and all that jazz: following countless hours of rehearsal, the West Warwick Players are ready to dazzle audiences with their rendition of “Chicago.”
Donning a bobbed wig, fishnet stockings and a shiny black flapper dress, Olivia Lancelotta was barely recognizable as she took the stage Thursday evening for one final dress rehearsal before Friday’s opening performance.
“I’m excited to show everyone what we’ve been working on for the past couple months,” said Lancelotta, a senior at the high school and president of its drama club.
Adapted from the popular Broadway musical set in roaring ’20s Chicago, the high school edition of “Chicago” follows two jailed murderesses — Roxie Hart, played by junior Alessandra Iannucci, and Velma Kelly, played by Lancelotta — as they vie for the spotlight before teaming up to find “fame, fortune and acquittal.”
Richard Marchetti, music coordinator for West Warwick Public Schools, said he’s wanted for a number of years to direct “Chicago.” And with the recent release of the high school version of the show, tweaked to be age-appropriate, the timing just seemed right.
“It’s a classic show that everybody knows the title of,” said Marchetti, the word “Chicago” spelled out above him in sparkling, massive letters. “We have the cast right now to do it, so we thought it was the perfect time.”
In selecting the 2020 production, he added, he also wanted to choose a musical that differed from others the students have done in the recent past — the Players presented “9 to 5” last year and “Shrek” the year before that.
“We’re really trying to touch a big realm of musical theater,” Marchetti said.
Featuring timeless themes like corruption and the concept of a “celebrity criminal,” “Chicago” is a great example of satire, said Kyra Cruz, a senior at the high school.
“It kind of pokes fun of the prison system and how corrupt it is, and how money can buy you a little bit of everything,” Marchetti added. “Who you know and how much money you have can really get you places.”
Framed by cabaret lights and oversized newspaper pages boasting headlines like “from convent to jail,” and “jazz and liquor Roxie’s downfall,” the stage in the West Warwick High School auditorium glows beneath soft red lighting. A row of jail cells and two sets of stairs leading to a balcony are just a couple features of the vaudeville-inspired set.
The set was built by Ken Townsend, director of property services and transportation for the West Warwick Public Schools, while Johnny Cagno arranged costumes for the production.
In creating the costumes, Cagno said his focus was to create looks that were tasteful yet true to the story.
“He really pulled out all the stops to make it as authentic and ’20s as possible,” Marchetti said, noting that many of the costumes were handmade.
Cagno owns Fantasy Factory Costumes, a costume-rental company in North Providence. While he enjoys what he does, Cagno finds the most joy, he said, in working with high school theater groups.
“They work hard, everyone has a drive to do it and they’re so appreciative,” he said, just before the curtain rose Thursday for the students’ final dress rehearsal. “You don’t really see that everywhere with community theater.”
And as the young actors took the stage to perform the opening number, each one of them in retro makeup, wigs and 1920s garb, that passion for theater was palpable.
Auditions for the production were held at the end of September, and the cast of 45 students and crew of around 15 have been hard at work rehearsing since.
Ayden Courage, a junior at the school, portrays Katalin Hunyak, a Hungarian immigrant who’s been accused of murdering her husband. In honing her interpretation of the tragic character, Courage said she tried to bring “a lot of sadness.”
“It’s a sad role but it’s very fun to play,” Courage said of her character, who gets treated unfairly because of her immigration status. “I just want it to be really heartfelt. I want the audience to feel it.”
Cruz, meanwhile, said she struggled initially to connect to the role of Matron “Mama” Morton, a sort of maternal figure who presides over the women’s block of the Cook County Jail. But during tech rehearsals, Cruz said, she was finally able to channel the sass and nurturing characteristics she’d been striving to find.
“I also needed to make her a little rough around the edges,” added Cruz, dressed in a leopard-print coat.
For Emma Jongen, a senior and exchange student from Belgium, participating in “Chicago” was particularly special.
“I think it added something to my experience — a really good thing,” said Jongen, who plays a dancer in the show. “I’m really proud of that, because we don’t do this kind of thing in my country.”
The hope, Cruz said, is that audience members will leave each performance impressed by the talent of the students involved.
“I hope they get a good night out of it and they see a good show,” Courage chimed in.
When the final curtain falls next Sunday, after months of rehearsing four days per week, the feeling among the cast and crew will be bittersweet.
“When the bell rings at 2 [after school] and I can go home, it’ll feel weird,” Marchetti said. “We’ve worked so hard — it’s like we’re all on a journey together, building this from the bottom up.”
And for Lancelotta, Cruz and the other seniors, the final curtain will be particularly significant.
“It’s sad — it’s been a part of me for so long and we’re all really tight,” said Lancelotta, who has performed with the West Warwick Players every year since entering high school. “But I’m excited to see the plays that they put on in the future.”
“Chicago: High School Edition” opened last night in the West Warwick High School auditorium and will continue through next weekend with shows tonight, Saturday, at 7 p.m., next Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and next Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the door or by visiting wwhsplayers.weebly.com.