"Chicago" for kids
I recently attended a high school performance of the musical Chicago. I don't know what percentage of Broadway musicals trickle down to community theater and high school performances, but I'm guessing it's a high number. The prospect of greater royalties is just too tempting. And so we have Chicago for kids. I'm conflicted. No matter how good the performance, I'm uncomfortable with teenagers doing a show like Chicago, that traffics so heavily in the sexual and especially the cynical. I know, we're in the age of hypersexualized youth, "it's the culture", "can't turn back the clock", Shakespeare isn't clean either. That might all be true, but it doesn't make it any easier for me to watch a (hopefully) virginal chorus girl flash her bike-short-covered crotch right at her dad holding the video camera in the fourth row. I grimace when a Roxie without a driver's license tells me how bad her husband is in bed. I bite my thumb when the six merry murderesses crow over killing their men, when the only thing they've ever killed is time in study hall. I like the reassurance of knowing Velma's husky voice is the result of steadily diminishing, perimenopausal female hormones, not too many runthroughs of "All That Jazz".
My queasiness aside, this Chicago had many good points. The directing and staging was excellent, and the pacing was superb. The acting, in big and small roles, was well prepared and well executed. The pit band, which was placed onstage, was a fanatastic group of pros and semi-pros. I love the music of Chicago and it was a thrill to hear it played live.
The dancing was well-organized and the chorus was lively and engaging, but I think it's an almost hopeless task to choreograph Chicago. Bob Fosse's choreography is extremely controlled -- a turn of the ankle, a soft bump of the hip, a splayed jazz hand, a slow split of the legs. These tightly edited details keep the dancing from falling into bad burlesque. Most time-strapped choreographers lift a few identifiable Fosse steps, then add in some eight count struts, a whole lot of crotch flashing and leg crossing, and inexplicable stand-up writhing. It ends up looking like a mix of Madonna and marching band. Examples are all over YouTube. I don't know if it's possible to teach subtle sensuality instead of sashays, but I would dearly love to see more choreographers try.
Singing Chicago as a teenager is like running a marathon after walking around the neighborhood a few times. A couple of songs seemed to have been transposed slightly higher, but the overall low vocal range of Chicago makes it extremely difficult for young singers. Neophyte belters tend to just haul up the heavier chest voice, pushing it through a tight throat and soft abdominals, in an effort to sound more dramatic and full. In fact, it just sounds really loud. Slower passages are often sung in a very breathy head voice, equating "slow" with "soft." This is baby belting, and it can lead to vocal damage. But, it's avoidable (or correctable) with the right instruction. True belting is an ever-changing mix of head voice and chest voice, with very solid abdominal support and a very free throat. It can be learned and practiced, even from a young age. I teach it in my studio, and I practice it myself.
The sole non-belt female role in Chicago is Mary Sunshine, the ever-optimistic reporter. Her operetta-style singing is played for laughs (and often by a male singing falsetto), but it got me thinking. If a school is ambitious enough to program Chicago, why not program an opera? Not La Boheme, of course, but why not Bastien und Bastienne or another early opera? Early operas are loaded with female parts and choruses in a healthy vocal range. There are loads of English translations. The dancing is based on the Minuet and crotches stay covered. The music is in the public domain. It's a thought.
Hats off to all who were involved with Chicago. Overall, I had a great time. The (very talented) Roxie was one of my former students, and it was a treat to see her and her family. I can't wait to see what she does next.
(Dear theater teachers: The next time you want to mount an ambitious show about a sexy, criminal-minded woman with man trouble -- and a low voice, may I recommend this?)