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PEMCo. brings ‘Chicago’ to Washington Hall for spring show

Courtney Cox | Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Pasquerilla East Music Company (PEMCo.) has taken on a daunting feat. Its choice of spring musical is none other than “Chicago.” The Broadway edition won a Tony Award for Best Revival in 1996 and the Hollywood film version won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2002. Despite the high standard set by previous renditions of the musical, PEMCo. manages to make the musical feel new and asserts the relevance of the film nearly a century after the real life events inspiring the play actually transpired.

There’s something indefinable that makes student productions. Producer Joe Augustinsky said this is “because it is held together by the blood, sweat and tears of college students who want nothing more than to put on a show.” There’s a passion for theater in this show that cannot quite be captured by the film version, though one can only hope no blood was actually spilt over this production.

The show is different in more tangible ways as well. For one, musical director John Kemnetz said that the cast and crew “weren’t looking for a vaudeville-style show with corny dance numbers and overacting … we looked instead to create more of a musical cabaret.”

“A great concern for everyone involved in the production is the fact that people may come to see the show expecting it to be just like the movie,” said Lesley Sullivan, who plays Velma Kelly. “It is not just like the movie; it is more. More songs, more dances, more comedy and only slightly less well-known celebrities.”

The style of the show is certainly much less flashy than the film version.

“Traditionally Chicago is done with a minimalistic set and costume design,” director and choreographer Kristen Steel said. “We stayed true to that idea with one large set piece and relatively simple costumes.”

It may not be what one expects to hear from the director of a show all about glamorized murder trial, but it certainly allows the cast to shine in the world they have created. They aren’t overburdened by their surroundings but instead create memorable characters through their own talent.

Creating a believable character could prove to be a difficult task for an actor who has seen someone portray the very same person to the acclaim of acting’s most prestigious institutions. Sullivan and Nora Collins, who plays Roxie Hart, both succeeded at the task.

“I’ve really tried to make Roxie my own,” Collins said. “I put myself in the character’s position and have made some decisions that are similar to Renee Zellweger’s character choices in the movie version but I think I have also done a good job making the role unique to me.”

Sullivan also contrasted her approach to the role to the movie version.

“Though at first there was pressure to try to live up to Catherine Zeta-Jones, there is no one way to play the role and no one person who is made for it,” Sullivan said. “Seems obvious. But once I realized that I was making this character for this audience, the pressure was off.”

The setting of Chicago in the Prohibition era seems so foreign and glamorous that it offered the actors plenty of room to discover something in the era that appealed to them. “It is so fun to experiment with all the old hairstyles, makeup trends and fashion,” Collins said. “The old Chicago slang of the ’20s even sneaks its way in a few scenes which is always fun.”

Though the play is all about the 1920s, it has themes that persist today. It is all about fame and how certain people can capture the attention of an entire nation. Kemnetz said he believes it is particularly relevant to Notre Dame students.

“It’s no great secret that the Notre Dame community will do crazy things when it comes to celebrities — everything from running after Taylor Swift’s golf cart to genuinely believing that Jimmy Clausen is attractive,” Kemnetz said. “In an age where we sexualize a 15-year-old Bieber and refresh celebrity blogs continuously to see Lindsay Lohan’s latest drug bender, Chicago tells us much about our obsession with people who commit crimes.”


On Campus

What: “Chicago”

Where: Washington Hall

When: 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 10, Friday, Feb. 11 and Saturday, Feb. 12

How much: $6, available at LaFortune Box Office