CWRU Footlighters production of “Chicago” was an immersive experience


Courtesy of @cwrufootlighters

Billy Flynn (Milo Cassarino) holds Mary Sunshine (Mariah Hamburg) as both of them sing and reach for their guns in a comedic performance.

Shivangi Nanda and Noah Henriques

The CWRU Footlighters’ spring production of “Chicago” was incredible, showcasing the impressive talent of student vocalists, dancers, actors, musicians and production crew members. Performances were only bolstered by the venue, the newly reopened Eldred Hall, which provided a better theatrical experience for actors and audiences alike. Selling out almost every show this weekend, “Chicago” is another feather in Footlighters’ hat and the culmination of 11 weeks of planning and rehearsing.

“Chicago” tells the story of Roxie Hart, a wannabe vaudevillian who dreams of fame and fortune in 1920s Chicago. When she is arrested for the murder of her affair partner, she finds herself in jail alongside another performer, Velma Kelly. The two navigate the corrupt criminal justice system and accompanying media frenzy—headed by reporter Mary Sunshine—surrounding their cases. Along the way, they get help from slick lawyer Billy Flynn and their Matron “Mama” Morton. The show is a beloved classic, and one we were excited to see performed by Footlighters.

A recent addition to Footlighters’ productions has been Eldred Hall, a new home for their operations. Instead of having to plan months in advance just to reserve the Thwing Ballroom, the crew now has a creative space dedicated to their needs. Finally, shows can take place in an authentic auditorium with in-house seating and lighting fit for a professional performance. In addition to technical benefits, Eldred Hall has a designated storage space and access to a scene shop where students can create the detailed sets. These resources not only helped the production run more smoothly, but also gave the cast and crew peace of mind along with more time to focus on the creative components of the musical.

And, the work that went into building and polishing these aspects were nothing short of remarkable. Students involved had to balance their full-time student responsibilities with that of “Chicago.” 93 people were involved, 85 costume pieces were made, 700+ square feet of wood were used and there were 17 instruments played by the pit, among other astounding statistics. Not only that, this was fourth-year student Max Welsh’s first production as director, making the achievement all the more impressive.

Of course, the production would be nothing without its stellar cast. Each actor embodied their character perfectly, resulting in a seamless performance. Roxie’s (Elizabeth Javorsky) cute, ditzy exterior was well-balanced by her manipulative and ruthless personality, a perfect foil for her loyal yet neglected husband Amos (Keira Celebuski). Kelly’s (Mary Coulter) ambition for a bigger, better life and her subsequent jealousy of Roxie’s theft of the spotlight created a point of conflict. While “Mama” Morton (Desir’ee Neal) kept the peace as the motherly warden, Flynn (Milo Cassarino) acted as the greedy lawyer who frequently became exasperated with the vaudeville murdereresses. One shining light was Mary Sunshine (Mariah Hamburg), who brought some much needed optimism and levity to the show with her colorful clothing and bright personality. Each member shone in their respective musical numbers and their clear passion for theatricality. At the end, we both were in awe at their ability to capture the essence of “Chicago” while also bringing a personal flair to every character. 

However, one of the most impressive numbers was one consisting of mostly ensemble performers. “Cell Block Tango,” performed by Kelly and the ensemble, is the audience’s introduction to the murderesses of Cook County Jail. As the song begins, each lady identifies with a single word—”pop,” “six,” “squish,” “uh-uh,” “Cicero” or “Lipschitz”—that relates to their respective murder. As the story of the murders are told and loosely acted out, these nonsensical phrases are repeated, creating a roguish and irreverent feel. Tied with the raunchy dance performance and crisp choreography, it was certainly one of the most complicated numbers of the night, as well as the most memorable. 

Making the cast performances and musical numbers complete was the pit orchestra. Tucked away in the lower level of Eldred Hall, they worked hard to produce the music live. In addition, the technical crew’s precise timing and attention to detail made the show flow seamlessly from one scene to the next. The costume and set designers also deserve recognition for their excellent work, as the props and costumes perfectly fit the time period of the show, transporting the audience back to 1920s Chicago. From Roxie and Velma’s vaudeville costumes to the background reporters with their handheld cameras, all were dressed to the theme.

All said, the CWRU Footlighters’ production of “Chicago”  definitely deserved its acclaim and strong attendance. The seamless blend of sets, vocals and cast performances created an immersive audience experience and proved the dedication of CWRU’s student performers and production crew. And with the perfect venue, the Footlighters were able to deliver another top-notch performance, making us eager to see what they’ll be bringing us next year.