Bruce Ludwig staged the audacious musical “The Full Monty” two years ago in Hood River to packed houses, and the veteran director and actor and a large cast and crew are back this month with “Chicago: The Musical,” which is likely the largest and most ambitious musical staged in the Gorge in years.
See photo caption for performance “tickets and times” details.
Set in the Roaring ‘20s, “Chicago” follows Roxie (Ashly Will), an aspiring starlet who will do anything to become famous. Landing in prison, she meets her idol Velma (April Sampson), an established star who is also trying to beat a murder rap. Roxie takes advantage of her husband, Amos (David Dye) as she craves the celebrity and success Velma commands, but they both want their slick lawyer, Billy Flynn (Joe Garoutte) to manipulate the system and set them free. Mama (Rebecca Stryker), the prison matron, holds the keys in more ways than one. Susan Sorenson choreographed the show, and Musical Director is Mark Steighner, who with his band have a bird’s-eye view of the show, performing from the freshly-built bandstand overlooking the stage at Bingen Theater.
Editor Kirby Neumann-Rea sat down recently at Dog River Coffee to talk about “Chicago” with Ludwig. A longer version of this interview can be found at hoodrivernews.com.
HRN: This is a big cast, with some folks who are new to the local stage.
Bruce Ludwig: “We have a lot of brand new ones. A lot of veterans and three of four people with little or no acting experience.”
HRN: And this is where Susan Sorenson comes in.
BL: “And Mark Steighner as music director has been huge. He has assembled some good musicians, new ones and some old hats as well. In terms of the overall production, choreography was a big deal. Susan started with something new, offering dance classes last winter. It was a huge success and they all learned, and when it came to auditions, there were a lot of people really well prepared.”
HRN: Is the choreography something that is provided?
BL: “This is (Susan’s) interpretation of the Bob Fosse dance style.”
HRN: The dance is critical to this show.
BL: “Absolutely, and not just that, we talk of singing being important, and what makes this show really different from a lot of musicals is that there is so much dance-and-sing, as opposed to stand-and-sing, and you see it in ‘I Can’t Do It Alone.’ April (Sampson) does this extensive routine for her and her sister, she is so out of breath at the end of it.”
HRN: I was struck by the fact it was not evident while April was singing that she was out of breath.
BL: “It takes tremendous breath control, I’ve been really impressed with what she’s done. The role of Velma has lots of dance and singing, probably more than any other character.”
HRN: This show is enhanced by a certain chemistry between Roxie and Velma, and April and Ashly sure have it.
BL: “Yeah, it starts out pretty much oppositional and by the end they’re pals, because they’ve been through it. Velma starts out pretty jaded, But Roxie’s naïve.”
HRN: My impression was Roxie’s naiveté was an act the whole time.
BL: “She’s putting on an act, but when you’re talking about Roxie and she first has the idea she can get celebrity. That’s naiveté. She becomes more jaded like Velma and starts getting full of herself, because ‘look at the headlines in the paper. I don’t need Billy Flynn, he’s not that important.’ It becomes an act.”
HRN: Is this musical a commentary on distorted aspirations of fame?
BL: “A little of that, definitely a dark look at our society and our tendency to look at criminal behavior or bad behavior and then sensationalize it and turn these people into celebrities. Every time we have a serial murderer, we use all three of their names, and people remember that, but they don’t remember good people.”
HRN: How much of this late 1920s and how much of it is 2018? It’s got some fairly timely commentary.
BL: “Good question. We didn’t change the script. I think the reason it’s timely is we haven’t changed as a society. All you see is bad news in the news, or most often, the good news is not remembered or a side note or page 7 in the paper, but I do think there are some pretty clear references to today.
“The other thing I’ll say is, the fact we’re using some of the women in the show as reporters in some of the scenes instead of men, makes it 2018.”
HRN: You would hardly have seen that other than certain star reporters, like the character Mary Sunshine (Jennifer Harty). What drew you initially to do this big, bold, brassy musical about murder and celebrity?
BL: “I have been around theater not as long as a lot of people, and there are people in the cast even with drama degrees or who have done professional theater, but in my experience in Hood River theater, we tend to do plays … with primarily male leads, rather than women. And this play gives a number of women really strong, empowered lead roles, and I wanted to be able to showcase that talent we have.”
HRN: There’s at least four including Mary Sunshine (Jennifer Harty).
BL: “Those four, but even the cellblock women, they’re strong featured roles, and the ensemble as a whole, is in my opinion the most important character in the show. I think anybody who thinks the ensemble is a minor role is mistaken. They’re on stage more than any other character and in almost every number.”
HRN: How does production feel now (May 29) compared to when you started planning this? How different is the outcome?
BL: “It’s pretty close. When you start out your vision is to do a lot. And we have done a lot in terms of our production. You change things and make sacrifices along the way, for time expediency. I tried to have six male dancers but at every turn something happens and we have five, but it’s working fine. The balance between male and female vocals is not optimal.”
HRN: A lot of them seem so natural. Your ensemble does their stories well, and seem very confident.
BL: “They’ve been practicing a lot.
“One of the other visionary things I saw happening early on was to transform the theater into something somewhat magical. If you’ve ever been there before I wanted people to come into that theater and not recognize the place, and that’s happening.”
HRN: Between the façade changes and wallpaper, and the added seating, and the bandstand …
BL: “We redid the front display windows, that was a vision I had from the beginning. The bandstand itself is amazing. It’s 10 by 17 plus a drum riser. A lot of is temporary, the band stand stays but the rest of it is temporary, I will put some additional seating on the floor and my hope is to get right at 150 seats in there.
“This truly is a team effort. I couldn’t possibly do all this myself. I am not a choreographer and not a music director, and so those are crucial, and I also don’t have time to do everything that had to be done to make that interior and set look the way it was going to look. That was Kim Robichaud. After seeing what she did for a birthday party at the Elks ballroom I was convinced she was the right person for the job. Another one has been Julie Hatfield and all her PR and marketing efforts. She has put in essentially a full time job. Our goal has been to sell out in the first weekend and frankly I think we’re close to that. Your readers should get their tickets.”
HRN: Then there’s costumes.
BL: “That’s Kathy Peldyak, who has done costumes for years at HRVHS and those shows have wonderful costumes. When I saw what she did with ‘Spamalot’ (2017), it was really well done and the costumes were clever and effective, so I asked her and of course she said yes. There are just so many people involved.”
Caution: Spoilers Ahead
HRN: Talk about red scarves (in the cellblock scene, when the murderesses flail red fabric as they describe their crimes.)
BL: “That came from the movie, that was an element I wanted. I got a little pushback from it, I may pull the plug on it.” (Ludwig kept the bit — editor).
“I needed them to be consistent in how they did it. Part of the reason for that is it helps distinguish Hunyak as the one innocent party. She’s the only innocent one in the show, and the only one that gets hanged.”
“That gets back to our cynical look at our society, and I was told that we don’t need to be reminded of that. Why do we need to be reminded? Everybody knows it.” I think it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that we have a cynical view of society. Whether you get a lesson from that or not is up to the individual, but it doesn’t hurt. Keeps things in perspective.
“What’s interesting in this show is that the only really ethical honest person is Amos Hart (Roxie’s gullible husband). He’s the only one with any kind of integrity and loyalty, yet nobody pays any attention to him. Isn’t that interesting? No one pays any attention to the ethical guy. They look right past him.”
HRN: He remains the mook he starts out?
“In terms of an arc he doesn’t have much of a transformation. He starts out as a hard-working loyal husband, gets taken advantage of by his wife, and he’s manipulated by Billy Flynn and even Roxie herself, and then he realizes he’s being manipulated. He does stand up for hikes. The song ‘Cellophane’ has the whole arc of his character, he starts out meek, and halfway through realizes I’m bigger than that but at the end of it he’s back to ‘sorry I took up your time.’ It cracks me up.”
HRN: Which is how people with not a lot of inner resolve and are susceptible to being manipulated will behave. They’ll find a little inner strength.
BL: “But they won’t sustain it. And even at the very end when it’s all very clear what has happened, as she’s acquitted, Amos comes in and he’s ready to come and take care of the baby, and she says, ‘there’s no baby.’ Poor guy. You gotta feel sorry for him.”