This week, the Soldotna High School theatre department is putting on the razzle dazzle with the three-day showing of “Chicago” — one of its edgier productions in recent years.
With two months of work behind them now, stage director Sara Erfurth, a SoHi drama and English teacher, said the cast and crew is ready to thrill the audience with a story that she has held dear to her heart for a long time.
“This is one of those plays I remember seeing in high school, and it really resonated with me,” Erfurth said. “It was one of those plays that I couldn’t get out of my head. The music’s so iconic and the storyline was so engaging.”
Although the play is a slight diversion away from the “Fairy Tale” performances that SoHi has put on recently, including last year’s “Cinderella,” many of the adult elements of the original musical have been cleaned up.
“If you’ve seen it, you know it’s a little salacious and controversial,” Erfurth said.
The play centers around themes of murder and corruption in 1920s Chicago, and the original musical and 2002 film showcase elements of vaudeville and sexuality that might make for some awkwardness around families attending the show.
Erfurth said she never considered tackling the play for a high school production, but when she heard news that production company Samuel French had released a cleaner version of Chicago that revised and softened the script to make it more community friendly, she knew it could be pulled off quite successfully.
“It is a big departure from what we’ve done the last couple years,” Efruth said.
Erfurth returns after several big productions at SoHi the past few years, including “Cinderella” and “Once Upon a Mattress,” the latter of which Terri Zoph-Schoessler directed with help from Erfurth.
Erfurth said she has worked with her biggest cast list yet, with around 24 people involved in the production. She attributes that to a greater concentration of dance and song numbers, which equates to more choreography and planning.
It also means the talent has had to take a step up, and Erfurth said the production will feature some of the strongest female vocalists SoHi has to offer. She said the two lead stars of the show, Katie Delker and Allison Towell, will combine to create quite a spectacular duo.
Delker plays the scandalous and feisty Roxie Hart, while Towell takes on the role of the glamorous and sarcastic Velma Kelly. Hart is accused of murdering her secret lover Fred Casely, played by Soldotna’s Demion Caulderon, after being caught by husband Amos Hart, played by SoHi’s Derrick Bever. While in jail, Hart slowly befriends Kelly while they both look for a way out.
SoHi junior Jaron Swanson plays the sensationalist lawyer, Billy Flynn, who is hired to represent both women. Swanson said playing Flynn is a challenge that he’s up to, particularly since he was picked for it.
“It’s fun. The nerves get to you sometimes,” Swanson said. “I was ready for any role I was given. If I was given a background, I’d take it. Or, if I was given this one, I was excited for it.”
Swanson isn’t new to the big roles. He played Prince Charming in “Cinderella” last year, and has attended a variety of acting camps, including a national excursion in Utah.
It helped prepare him for such expert numbers as “Razzle Dazzle” and “We Both Reached For The Gun,” which test even the most seasoned singers with quick lyrics and rhythm.
“It’s new for a lot of us,” Swanson said. “It’s exciting. It’s scary. But we’re all ready for it.”
SoHi junior Rowan Vasquez, who takes on the character of Matron “Mama” Morton, said the revised high school edition of “Chicago” has been a work in progress, even without some of the more risqué material.
“It’s a little bit harder because we have to do things exactly from the book, or else we can’t do it,” Vasquez said. “It’s kind of on the edge, but we’re going for it.”
Swanson added that the cleaned-up version is something that he thinks will make for a better show.
“First, I think it’s a great idea, because all these families will be there,” Swanson said. “But (it’s good) they kept some of the things, because if they ripped all of it away, it wouldn’t have been Chicago. They found the right gray area between.”
And the strong female voices that Erfurth alluded to are hard to miss. Vasquez, a Triumvirate North Theatre actress who is participating in her third SoHi play, said she has always enjoyed taking on the “bossy” characters, something that her character is well known for.
“I think of my character as a confident lady,” Vasquez said. “When I’m acting it, I have to confident about things, but it puts me out of my comfort zone, and it’s good.”
The stage veteran said working under Erfurth has been a great experience.
“She doesn’t come into it with a little bit of thought,” Vasquez said. “She comes in with this big imagination.”
Erfurth said the process has also been substantially anchored by the talents hidden behind the stage, the production crew.
Erfurth’s husband Nathan, the technical director of the production, has led the behind-the-scenes efforts with set and lighting design, and credited the kids with building the immaculate sets.
“The kids build it, they’re the ones that make it happen,” he said. “Our kids are so committed to a lot of things. Theater is often a secondary obligation. We’ve got athletes and academic achievers, or singers, so it’s getting everybody here … consistently enough to build something big.”
Erfurth said he has been planning it out since March, and enlisted the help of master carpenter Levi Wahl, a SoHi senior. Wahl said he enjoys the multitasking aspect of the production.
“It’s a fun chance to solve problems that you wouldn’t get in a shop class or something,” Wahl said. “There are so many moving parts to this one. The jail cells are moving. The screen flats are going up and down. Just a lot of parts to actually make work.”
Ultimately, “Chicago” is expected to be a success due to the complete team effort and the elements that the story addresses.
“I think its cynicism is kind of refreshing,” Sara Erfurth said. “Because this is a play about terrible people, and the people who should be punished in the end, aren’t. It’s an interesting commentary on society, and what we’re drawn to. It’s an uncomfortable mirror, but not an inaccurate one.
“It’s nice to have plays that discuss society and discuss corruption, and tackle bigger issues in fun ways.”