To be successful in the performing arts, hearing the word “no” a few times, or even dozens of times, can become discouraging. That doesn’t apply only to performers, it’s also great advice for the production staff.
The persistence of Michael Sundblad, chair of Thomas Nelson’s Performing Arts department and an associate professor, and Torrie Sanders, former theater manager, is the reason the College’s opening production this season is “Chicago.”
“Torrie and I had tried to get the rights to ‘Chicago’ for about five years. We kept asking and asking and asking,” Sundblad said. “When they finally said yes, we were shocked.”
Sundblad, the production's musical director, explained that when shows are on Broadway, it’s hard to obtain amateur or educational licenses, especially if they are big hits. “Chicago” first ran on Broadway from 1975-77. A revival came out in 1996 and still is running today, making it the longest-running musical revival and the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. A film version was released in 2002.
“Like all good shows, it works on a lot of different levels,” said Dana Margulies Cauthen, who was handpicked by Sanders to direct the show. “It’s about our past, but you can find things that point to today in it.”
The play is set in the 1920s, with two women on trial for killing their husbands. It turns into a media circus with the defense attorney turning both of the defendants into celebrities.
“I’ve always loved this show,” Sundblad said. “It’s the music for me.”
That music also poses challenges for Sundblad and Cauthen. There are about a dozen musicians, and the band is on stage, as it was in the Broadway revival. The four main performers do most of the singing, which often has to be heard over the band, which is just a few inches away from them.
“All that is tough,” Sundblad said. “We’ve got really good musicians. The music doesn’t sound hard because they’re so good, but it’s really hard music.”
Cauthen, an adjunct professor at Old Dominion University who does a lot of work with other colleges and theater groups in the area, said putting the musicians and performers together is the challenge.
“When you do a musical, all those working parts have to come together: the live music, the set, the actors and what they’re doing on stage,” she said. “It’s really that three-ring circus, funny enough, which we have in the show.”
One of the lead performers is Thomas Nelson freshman Elizabeth Gallant, who graduated from Warhill earlier this year. She plays Roxie.
“I auditioned for the role of Roxie, specifically,” she said. “She is my character type. I tend to play the love interest or popular mean girl.”
While Gallant was familiar with the play before auditions, she said she didn’t realize how corrupt her character was until the first read-through.
“I came to put myself in her shoes to sympathize,” Gallant said. “I love how obsessed Roxie is with performance although, as a character, in actuality, she is not talented.”
Gallant considers herself, in order, a singer, dancer and then actress. With this performance, however, she has been able to work more on her acting.
“Some specifically challenging aspects of portraying this character is incorporating the vaudeville acting, making it less genuine and more presentational as the play is designed as such,” she said. “It is a comedy that plays off of the audience.”
Sundblad said minor changes have been made, some of it because they were not allowed to use Bob Fosse’s original choreography. And there’s more interaction with with the audience and on stage.
“We break the fourth wall,” Sundblad said. “The actors talk directly to the audience. The chorus does a lot of interacting with the audience and each other.”
Jim Worthey, who took over as theater manager for Sanders, is excited about his first show with Thomas Nelson.
“What’s actually been great is how big the cast is, how big the whole production is,” he said. “I’ve met lots of people that would have taken me about three or four months to meet otherwise. … It’s been an experience. It’s been fun.”
That’s a word that comes up a lot when talking about the show with Sundblad.
“It’s a lot of fun. The story’s fun. I think the music is fun,” he said. “It’s a morale tale, which I think is often forgotten about this piece. It’s sort of a musical fable. I cannot image anyone coming to see this who would not enjoy it.”
Performances are set for Nov. 15, 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24. The Friday and Saturday shows start at 8 p.m., and the Sunday shows are at 3 p.m. To purchase tickets, visit tncc.edu/performingarts.