FAME, FORTUNE AND ALL THAT JAZZ
A few dozen people stand on the stage of the Shreveport Little Theatre on a stormy, Wednesday evening, warming up for that night’s rehearsal.
“Stretch out … space yourselves,” said Laura Beeman Nugent, director and choreographer, as she starts a playlist of hiphop music.
Everyone begins dancing, hopping and moving to match Nugent’s cues.
Many of them have just left work or school. Possibly in need of a break.
Probably wanting to sit down, watch some television. But there they are, on stage, volunteering their time and preparing their bodies and voices for another night of rehearsing “Chicago,” which for the cast is the performance of a lifetime.
First performed as a musical in 1975, “Chicago” is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. It’s a tale of sex, murder and news media exploitation in 1920s Chicago.
Because of the musical’s popularity, the Shreveport Little Theatre worked for a decade before landing the exclusive rights to the show.
Robert Darrow, the Shreveport Little Theatre’s managing and artistic director, summed the “very restrictive” rights up to profit.
“If people go see a play locally, you’re more apt not to see the same play in New York, where there’s more profit,” he said.
The last time a Shreveport-based theater performed ‘Chicago’ was in the 1990s at Centenary College, of which Darrow took part.
“Chicago is a well-known commodity,” Darrow said, who’s seen the musical three times. “The buzz is pretty high with this one – big commercial musicals go over very well.”
But, before the curtain rises July 15, the cast must rehearse.
“We will rehearse five nights a week for six weeks,” Nugent said. “[Cast members] come in night after night. They really put themselves through the ringer.”
At this night’s rehearsal, cast members are now warmed up and listening to Nugent map out her plans. Tonight’s goal is to run the show – top-to-bottom – without stop. Everyone takes their places and after a little instruction launches into “All That Jazz,” the show’s first musical number and the introduction to Velma Kelly, who is portrayed by Linnea Fayard Allen.
“It’s such a great role,” Allen said, who began preparing just to audition for the role of Velma shortly after the Little Theatre announced the production in December.
“Because I desperately wanted to play this role,” she explained.
Allen, who lives in Ruston, actually relocated her life for the role. Luckily, she has family and friends to stay with during the work week; plus, she works with a company that has offices in Shreveport- Bossier City.
When asked why “Chicago” commands such passion, Allen replied, “‘Chicago’ is an iconic production. It never goes away.”
Allen’s explanation is very similar to how Nugent sees the musical’s draw.
“It’s a pretty amazing show … a show people love to see over and over,” said Nugent, who caught a performance as a high-schooler in New York.
As the director and choreographer, she ensures the production goes off as flawlessly as possible.
During the rehearsal of “Cell Block Tango,” the musical’s third number, Nugent sneaks on stage and rearranges props while Allen and others sing and dance without interruption. She deftly moves chairs, which the ladies continue to dance around and on, a few inches this way and that.
Nugent returns to her seat. The performance never stopped.
“We have some great, great people playing the leads,” Nugent said about cast members, like Allen.
“All working together toward the common goal to make this production the best it can be.”
When asked why people volunteer for such a grueling process, Nugent summed it up with one word: passion.
“Because most of these performers volunteering their time have a passion for theater. This is their time for a creative release,” she said.
And passion is the word of choice for Barbara Holmes, who plays Matron “Mama” Morton.
“It’s so amazing because the passion starts with Laura’s direction and just trickles down,” said Holmes, who when not rehearsing three-hours-a-night, works full time and parents an 11-year-old daughter.
But she downplayed the possible exhaustion brought on by the many nights of rehearsals.
“When I get on that stage, it’s like, ‘Whoa, I got to go.’ The adrenaline and excitement outweigh my tired feelings,” Holmes said.
Holmes started volunteering with the Shreveport Little Theatre in 2007. Her passion for performing began with singing.
“Oh, my Lord, I can sing in my sleep, and acting just became part of it,” she said.
Her involvement with the show happened by request.
“Laura sent me a text, asking me to come and audition,” Holmes recalled.
Regarding “Chicago,” Holmes said she knows the musical is very popular with audiences.
“A lot of theater’s are trying to get the rights to this show,” she said, echoing Darrow.
Both Nugent and Darrow point to the 2002 film adaptation of “Chicago” for increasing the musical’s popularity.
“As a lover of musical theater, I love to see a musical on film,” Nugent said.
“And when it hit mainstream, it brought a whole new group of people into loving the story, as well.”
During the Little Theatre’s rehearsal for “Chicago,” performers practice their dancing and singing accompanied by a single piano. But, as the production date grows nearer, that single piano will be joined by community musicians throughout Northwest Louisiana.
By opening night, a full orchestra will bring “Chicago” to life with a “big brass, jazz sound.”
“It really is a first for the Little Theatre,” Nugent said. “And it’s few and far between that [many performers] get to use a live orchestra.”
With three numbers down and nearly an hour into rehearsal, the cast sets up for Holmes’ breakout song, “When You’re Good to Mama.”
And despite the long rehearsals, the men and women gathered on the Little Theater’s stage look awake and alive.
“Everybody wants to give it their all,” said Holmes about the stores of energy. “They want to be at their best.”
And it’s because of that commitment and passion, Nugent is certain “Chicago” will be well received.
“I think the Shreveport community will love this,” she said.Want to go?
‘ChiCago’ runs 8 p.m. July 15-17, 22-25, 29-31, aug. 1 and at 2 p.m. July 18, 26 and aug. 2 at the shreveport little theatre. For inFormation on tiCkets, go to shreveportlittletheatre.Com or Call the theater at 424-4439.