The Hippo


May 29, 2020








This weekend, the Abbey Players take on Chicago. Courtesy photo.

See Chicago

Where: Dana Center for the Humanities, 100 Saint Anselm Drive, Manchester
When: Friday, April 8, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, April 9, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 10, at 2 p.m.; Friday, April 15, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, April 16, at 7:30 p.m.
Admission: $14

Period Chicago
Abbey Players go back to the original story

By Kelly Sennott

 The Anselmian Abbey Players’ take of Chicago is very different from the Broadway revival, and it will be obvious within the first few minutes — instead of a curtain speech, audiences get a pre-show before the musical starts. They’ll see 1920s theater-goers meandering up and down the aisles and onto the stage, entering the speakeasy and enjoying the night to see the famous Velma Kelly perform.

Everything about the play’s design, in fact, is to get you to feel like it really is the 1920s, most notably with the costumes — they’re from the period, not lingerie — and the stage-within-a-stage that gets wheeled on and off, defining what’s real life and what’s Roxie Hart’s perspective.
The musical, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, is set in Prohibition-era Chicago and based on the 1926 play of the same name by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, about the actual criminals and crimes she reported on. The original Broadway production opened in 1975, and the revival, which opened in 1996, is the second-longest-running show in Broadway history.
“I wanted to approach the story from a storytelling perspective, not a sexy dance show perspective. Though it still has lots of amazing dance — it’s still a sexy show,” Director Joel Mercier said via phone. “The revival … was put together like a limited-edition concert that was in New York, and it was so popular that they moved it to Broadway.”
For the revival, Mecier said, everyone had one costume the whole show. The orchestra sat on the stage, and the emphasis was on the dance, the music. 
“It’s a neat concept, and it has its strengths,” Mercier said. 
But also weaknesses. One of the things Mercier hears often is how difficult it is to follow, which is why he’s created a new vision from scratch.
“I wanted to make it more about the 1920s murders. … What these people did in 1920s Chicago — they tried to use the media to create a frenzy to make these murderers celebrities and get them off. Here we are in 2016, and regardless of your political persuasion, isn’t that happening now? Aren’t we sort of watching scandal and ridiculous behavior getting glamorized by the media? So to me, that’s what makes it so interesting a story,” Mercier said. “The purpose of setting this in the 1920s is to look and see how the same problem is happening almost 100 years later, and is probably worse.”
The costumes have been tricky, because the story is told from murderess Roxie Hart’s perspective. Half are period garb — flapper dresses, suits, reporter trench coats — while the ones appearing in Roxie’s story are coated in glitter, sequins and glamour. 
In the cast of 24, each actor has four or five outfits, Mercier said, and some of the changes have to be quick. They transition via tear-away costumes made specifically for this production. The jail clothes are actually long, black and white striped dresses held together with velcro and magnets that slip on and off easily.
Leading the cast are Stephanie Conti, a sophomore who plays Roxie Hart, and Meredythe Leonard, a senior who plays Velma Kelly, both from Londonderry.
Last year’s Thoroughly Modern Millie was a 1920s musical, too, but this show is darker. They were surprised when Chicago was chosen for the 2016 Dana Center stage, as Saint Anselm College is a Catholic school, but they were happy with the result, particularly since the theater team is chock-full of female actors.
“I think Chicago has been generating a large buzz around the student body. [The Abbey Players] have been in existence a long time, and as with most groups, there’s a lot of repeat shows. They’ve never done Chicago,” Mercier said.
They like that Mercier is placing so much emphasis on character development, and that no, they don’t have to prance around onstage in their underwear. (One reason is it means less time at the gym.) They were planning on spending all Saturday at the theater, building sets and props and finalizing costumes. 
“Some people will definitely come to the show expecting we’ll be dancing in lingerie and all black, but we are focusing a lot more on the characters, and I think people will leave the show and not be disappointed with that,” Conti said. 

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