“Better than Broadway” is a plaudit you’d expect to hear after a national tour of a popular theatrical piece, or maybe after a particularly stellar regional production. But this phrase is not one often attributed to a high school show.
Yet this is exactly what audience members are saying after experiencing Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” at West Boca High School.
“Chicago” is a familiar show, having won the 1996 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and continually playing in New York since, making it the longest-running American musical ever. The 2002 film version was quite a success as well, winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards and earning Catherine Zeta-Jones a coveted golden statue.
The show follows fame-hungry Roxie Hart (Carolyn Castillo) as she lands herself in Chicago’s Cook County Jail after killing her lover, Fred Casely (George Said), who wanted to end their relationship. At the prison, Roxie meets one of her idols, Velma Kelly (Alexia Assuncao), and is jealous of her fame. But Roxie soon sees her name in the spotlight with the help of her silver-tongued lawyer, Billy Flynn (Ryan Lim). Throughout the show, both Roxie and Velma vie for the attention of the press—and of the audience.
Unlike many school productions, “Chicago” benefits from an intricate set designed by professional scenic designer Sean McClelland. While “Chicago” is often performed on an almost bare stage, this two-story set allows for the action to be seen in a different way. A prime example is the opening number of the show, “All That Jazz,” which also features Roxie and Fred’s love affair and subsequent murder. While other versions have staged all of the action on the same playing field, McClelland’s set allows Roxie and Fred’s story to take place on the second tier, while Velma’s performance occurs on the first.
Lighting designer Jose Santiago brings the set to life by covering the stage’s proscenium with lights, while a second proscenium of lights appears just within the set. As audiences walk into the show, they will also be met with a beautifully lit “Chicago” marquee that matches the playbill and most logos that viewers will have seen for the show.
The perfect combination of both set and light coalesces in arguably the most intense number of the show, “Cell Block Tango.” Resembling the movie more than most stage productions, the number spotlights each individual scorn wife as she performs her part, while ensemble members appear behind cells draped in red lighting at the emotional climax of the song.
However, it is director Lance Blank and choreographer Angela Morando who should be singled out for the vibrancy of the show. Morando captures the essence of the Bob Fosse numbers and executes them with style and a bit of “razzle dazzle,” including the silks used by performers in the number of that same name. Under Blank’s direction, the students’ passion flows through their performances while hitting each cue.
Assuncao and Castillo both prove to be triple threats with acting, singing and dancing, which makes it slightly difficult to decide who to watch when they share the stage. Lim makes quite the impression as Billy, though with a little less swagger and power than were embodied in Richard Gere’s film performance. This Billy makes viewers like him more than previous incarnations, when he is a character that you love to hate.
But acting-wise, one of the best performances comes from Aaron Avidon, who plays Roxie’s faithful and lonely husband, Amos Hart. His performance is heartbreaking, especially when his exit music fails to play when he leaves for the final time, and makes it easy to sympathize with a usually annoying character.
I would like to take a moment to give a special nod to the entire ensemble, without whom the production would be much less spectacular. These actors do not miss a cue and know just how to give a little more to the show while not taking away from the principal actors. And, for a high school show, the ensemble bares a considerable amount of skin alongside costumes that match the Broadway production, which is not something that audiences should take lightly. High school is famous for body shaming, so seeing the actors fully confident in their skin deserves major recognition.
Opening night ran with almost no technical or acting issues. Assuncao unfortunately lost her hat during her final number, but continued without issue. The only other noticeable issue was when Avidon’s voice cracked at the end of “Mister Cellophane,” but his dedication to the song and performance made this mistake easily forgettable.
West Boca’s “Chicago” is a performance not to be missed and will have you begging for more. All tickets are only $15, but with an opening night audience of more than 500 people, I suggest you arrive early. Final performances run at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Call 561/672-2066 or visit wbhsdrama.com.
This article was published on Boca Magazine on March 9, 2016 and can be found here. Photo Credits to Angela Morando-Taylor.