‘Chicago’ comes to Aspen | AspenTimes.com
For a musical set in 1929 that was first staged in 1975, the performers and creative team behind Theatre Aspen’s “Chicago” say it is striking just how modern the show is.
“Chicago could not be more contemporarily relevant. … Everything about it pertains to this very moment,” said Theatre Aspen mainstay Mark Martino, who directs the show debuting Wednesday and running through July 22 at the Hurst Theatre.
The production’s plot — “merry murderesses” vie for attention in the media spotlight in the Roaring ‘20s — is certainly ripe with perennial themes, performers Julie Kavanagh (playing Roxie Hart) and Galyana Castillo (Matron Mama Morton) said. Sensationalism, fascination with the media, celebrity criminals and the notion of a trial by media are as relevant now as ever, they said.
“It’s so much about getting the general public on, quote-unquote, ‘on your side,’ for the quote-unquote, ‘justice to be to be served.’ And it is just a circus, it’s theatrical, it’s a performance that you have to put on to get your trial to be seen, which is kind of horrifying,” Castillo said. “But also, it’s holding a mirror — it’s kind of holding a mirror to America and saying, is this the way that we want to approach justice?”
So too is there a throughline in the emergence from a global pandemic and what Martino describes as “an explosion of energy after repression.”
Then, it was the Spanish influenza that slowed things to a crawl before the 1920s started roaring; now here we are again, emerging from COVID-19 and entering the second decade of the century “just on the precipice of that next explosion,” Martino said.
Timely as “Chicago” may be for this particular day and age, Martino also wanted to return to the show’s 1920s roots by leaning into the iconography of the era.
Those who have seen the Broadway iteration of the production (with choreography by Bob Fosse and a black-and-white color scheme) will find themselves at an entirely different “Chicago” at the Hurst Theatre, where performers will don bright colors and flapper dresses and weave dances like the Charleston into their choreography.
“It’s daunting to take on something that’s so identified with a particular look and a particular choreographer — a choreographer who, by the way, I revere. … But when you don’t have that, when that’s not what you’re going to do, it lets you just play with the material in a new way,” Martino said. “I think what we’re discovering with the Theatre Aspen version is a perhaps brighter version of the show that still, I think, gets all those themes across.”
The circumstances of the past 15 pandemic months warranted additional adaptation that will create a uniquely Aspen iteration of the show, Martino and music director Eric Alsford noted.
There will be no intermission, so some ideas have been condensed, Martino said. And the cast list has been pared down some from what the book might otherwise require, so Alsford said he had to rethink some of the vocal arrangements to better suit the group.
The audience will be masked, and there will be no performers immersing themselves in that audience, but Martino wanted to ensure that the connection between those onstage and those in seats would still be palpable, he said.
“It’s a very intimate setting,” Martino said. “So I’m trying to get the storytelling very forward very much without going into the audience. … I want to bring it as close to the audience as I can so that we can really tell the story in a very up close way.”
Just to have that opportunity to connect and tell stories on stage isn’t something that the team behind “Chicago” sees as significant.
The musical was originally on tap for Theatre Aspen’s summer 2020 season (along with “Rock of Ages,” running July 30 to Aug. 21) before the pandemic forced a pivot to smaller-scale cabaret performances last year; “Chicago” marks the first time both Kavanagh and Castillo will perform onstage for an audience since last March.
“There’s a sense of community that was stripped away from us and that I strive to never take for granted ever again,” Kavanagh said. “But to be able to tell stories in the way that I feel like is just so ingrained in every fiber of our being — just to be able to tell stories together, be a part of the community.”
“There’s nothing like it, and we are certainly grateful to be back at it again,” Castillo added.
For Martino, too, opening night will commemorate his return to in-person productions. He sees it as a homecoming, in a way, to the theater where he’s spent 13 summer seasons with the company.
“It’s my summer theater home, and because I wasn’t here last year, I felt very lost, you know?” Martino said. “And it’s very fitting to me that the first place I get to come back to is someplace I’ve actually forged a sense of home.”