‘Chicago’ shimmies onto Venture’s stage next week

Bringing a blockbuster musical to a community theater stage doesn’t come without its share of challenges, one of trickiest being fitting 20-some dancers and a six-piece orchestra on stage.

Venture Theatre is adding two feet to the stage in the Roebling Theater to accommodate the cast for the musical “Chicago,” which opens on Friday, June 3. The legendary Bob Fosse-style jazz dance with bowler hats, canes and turned in knees is as integral to the show as the jazz piano and flapper dresses. And a two-story metal scaffolding added to the back of the stage allows performers to swing and slide on three levels during the production.

“Chicago” was written about the same time that Montana’s Jeanette Rankin was serving as the first female member of the U.S. Congress after she was elected in 1917. Its themes of corruption and abuse of fame aren’t exactly parallel to Rankin’s life as a strong leader pushing for change. “Chicago” shows off the sleazier side of the Roaring ’20s when the corrupting influences of men and liquor turned some good girls bad.

Venture’s selection of “Chicago” for the Rankin File production for this season speaks more to the fact that it was written by a female reporter, Maurine Dallas Watkins, and showcases some of the strongest female performers in the area. Venture’s associate artistic director Sarah Butts performs in the role of Roxie Hart, a woman charged with murdering her lover and then blaming it on her husband. Roxie is based on the real-life murder suspect Beulah Sheriff Annan.

Skyview High School music teacher Amy Logan plays her sidekick Velma, who is based on the murder suspect Belva Gaertner, a real-life twice-divorced cabaret singer. Billings theater veteran Vincent Raye plays the women’s attorney, Billy Flynn, based on two defense attorneys during the 1924 murder trials of the women.

“Those leads can all really handle their stuff,” director Susan Kennedy Sommerfeld said.

The story is a biting satire on corruption in the criminal justice system and the idea of the celebrity criminal. Even though it was written more than 80 years ago, there are modern similarities.

“It’s amazing how timely “Chicago’s” sexy story really is — celebrity murders and people cashing in on that fame seems sadly commonplace now,” Venture artistic director Robert Brian Wood said.

Sommerfeld, a familiar Billings stage performer, took on the directing role with longtime Venture Theatre board member Susan Scariano assisting. They pulled in Kathy Honaker to serve as music director.

“It is so much Kathy’s style because she is such a great jazz pianist,” Sommerfeld said. “It was really good match for her.”

Several Billings dance instructors are involved in the musical with choreography by Betsy Harris Schwahn.

“We ended up with a lot of strong dancers, which is exciting with a show like this,” Sommerfeld said. “Betsy has outdone herself with the choreography. Betsy and I had this decision, ‘Let’s make this our show, not like everybody else’s.”

Once Sommerfeld got so many talented theater folks involved in the show, more signed on, including the co-owners of a Billings dance studio, Amantha Vandiviere and Lisa Oppengaard. To get Vandiviere and her trumpet-playing husband into the production, Sommerfeld organized teenagers to babysit their young daughter during rehearsals and shows so they could spend the time in the theater. Amantha will perform en pointe during one scene in “Chicago.”

Review: Venture’s “Chicago” sets bar high for local theater

June 17, 2011 6:19 pm  •  By JACI WEBB Of The Gazette Staff‌

The merry murderesses kick high and croon their way to freedom in Venture Theatre’s production of “Chicago,” despite the fact that they all admit to knocking off husbands and lovers.

Leads Sarah Butts and Amy Logan’s tight harmonies and on-stage swagger are highlights of the musical, directed by Susan Kennedy Sommerfeld. “Chicago” continues its run in Venture’s Roebling Theater through June 25. Call the theater at 591-9535 for tickets or show times. This is clearly Velma and Roxie’s story, two women corrupted by jazz and liquor easing their way out of prison through slick tricks a la the corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn (Vincent Raye). Raye’s performance of “We Both Reached for the Gun” turns into a fantastic ventriloquist act with Billy singing the whole piece out of the corner of his mouth while Butts as Roxie moves her lips and head as if she’s made of wood.

But Flynn’s tap dance around justice is nothing compared to the venom and lack of conscience of Velma and Roxie.

Logan, who teaches music at Skyview High and is a familiar voice in Rimrock Opera productions, owns the brazen role of Velma, the cabaret singer who murders her husband and sister and tries to use the media attention to revamp her stagnant career. The show is set in an era of judicial corruption in 1920s Chicago. One crazy scene has members of the chorus dressed as circus performers — a juggler, clown and a tattooed lady — as they perform the song “Razzle Dazzle” with Billy.

The musical introduces the notion of celebrity criminals, a hot topic in today’s world. And even though the musical is taken from a 1926 play written about two actual trials covered by real-life reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, it feels like it could have happened last week.

Butts, associate artistic director at Venture Theatre, gives one of her best stage performances since she arrived on the Billings theater scene. She pouts in all the right places and keeps up vocally with Logan and physically with the well-trained and rehearsed members of the chorus, two of whom run dance studios in Billings.

Sommerfeld made wise choices in casting this show, especially in the role of Amos Hart, played by Kyle Trott, who not only hits the right notes but sings with great passion. Trott also performed a leading role in “Miss Saigon” earlier in the season.

Another standout is Christie Anderson as the conniving Matron “Mama” Morton. Her duet with Logan on “Class” is beautifully balanced between soft harmonies and ironic lyrics about manners and justice while they connive ways to screw everyone but themselves.

But, of course, nobody could soar vocally without the amazing performance by the six-piece band led by Kathy Honaker.

“Chicago” sets the bar high for Venture Theatre as it enters its 20th season in August with “Xanadu.”