Chicago (Fort Bragg)
With apologies to PETA, it seems like you can’t swing a dead cat in Northern California these days without hitting a production of Chicago. The Kander and Ebb musical had a Pinole Community Players production in January, Santa Rosa’s SRT had it in July, it opens at Napa’s Lucky Penny in September and then has a run with the Novato Theatre Company in October. So why shouldn’t Fort Bragg’s Gloriana Musical Theatre join the party?
In existence in one form or another since 1976 (about as long as Chicago has been around,) Gloriana has been bringing the American Musical experience to Mendocino County audiences since 1982 and invests in its local talent through a high school performing arts scholarship. They do this while facing the usual challenges of producing community theatre exacerbated by a limited population. (Mendocino County has 1/6th the population of neighboring theatre-abundant Sonoma County.) Despite those challenges they’ve managed to put up a pretty good production of Chicago.
First produced in 1975, Chicago is the second longest-running Broadway musical. It’s the story of murderess Roxie Hart (Blare Elliott), her cell mate and fellow murderess Velma Kelly (Alexis Eich), their lawyer Billy Flynn (Jeff Grant), Roxie’s cuckolded husband Amos (Chuck Mordock) and prison matron Mama Morton (Ui Wesley). It was a significantly ahead-of-its-time look at judicial manipulation and the cult of the celebrity criminal.
Director David Strock adheres to the usual minimalist approach to the piece (the only real set pieces are prison bars) and as with most community theatre has a cast of varying levels of talent and experience. As Roxie, the 18-year-old Elliot shows promise but does not yet have the maturity to fully embrace the role of the devious vixen and struggled with the conclusions of several musical numbers. Alexis Eich grabs the character of Velma by the throat and wrings it for all its worth, delivering a fully-formed character that from the show’s opening set the standard of performance level for this production. Chuck Mordock met that standard with his milquetoast Amos and a perfect delivery of “Mr. Cellophane” that had several of the audience members wanting to run up on stage and give him a hug. I found Jeff Grant’s Billy Flynn light in voice and thin in character. Disappointingly bland and one-note, he displayed none of the snake oil salesman charm or innate sleaziness one would expect from Chicago’s preeminent criminal lawyer. U’ilani Wesley’s Matron Mama Morton is a scene stealer with a great stage presence and voice to match. Will Schlosser embraced the physicality of Mary Sunshine but his falsetto was often difficult to understand. This may have been an amplification issue, as I believe this is the first Gloriana production to be miked and they may not have had sufficient time to master this technical element. A nice stand-alone mike allowed Mark Hetherington’s Master of Ceremonies to come across loud and clear as he introduced the various “acts” of the show. An interesting mix of Cabaret’s own Master of Ceremonies and Rocky Horror’s Riff Raff, Hetherington’s work made me think about what he might have done with Billy Flynn.
The show’s best moments occurred in the larger ensemble numbers with director Strock and choreographer Tara Ford showing a good eye for stage composition. From the opening “All That Jazz”, through “Cell Block Tango” and particularly with “Razzle Dazzle”, the large Eagles Hall Theater was filled by the colorfully draped characters (courtesy Kathy Katz) doing a pretty good job of singing and dancing through some quite physical choreography. Musical director Marie Claire-Dizin and a 7-piece, on-stage orchestra handled the often-challenging Kander score with aplomb, though there were some obvious moments of musical struggling. The show clipped along at a fairly good pace, and kudos to Gloriana management for keeping the obligatory intermission fund raising raffle short and sweet.
Critics’ opinions have little to do with the success or failure of any show. It’s the community’s response that matters, and while at intermission I overheard several audience members express some thoughts along the same lines as mine, by show’s end the audience was on their feet and cheering – as they should, both in response to a group of artists (some who regularly traveled hours to attend rehearsals and performances) doing their damndest to entertain them and for having the opportunity to experience the joy of live theatre.
There’s a lot to like about Gloriana Musical Theatre’s Chicago, the main thing being that it manages to serve both its community of theatre artists and its audience. They took on the challenges of producing a huge show and managed to bring a bit of razzle dazzle to Mendocino County. You gotta like that.
Presented by Gloriana Musical Theatre
Thurs/Fri/Sat @ 7:30pm Sun @ 3pm
through August 13
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
Photos by Larry Wagner