When the curtain rises on YCPAC’s April production, flapper, chanteuse and occasional murderess Velma Kelly (Leah Morales) sets the scene in a Prohibition-era gin joint. It may not sound like a lofty destination — “Just a noisy hall/With a nightly brawl” — but you wouldn’t believe what it’s taken to get there.
Chicago, the sexy, darkly hilarious and quintessentially American musical about justice in the era of bathtub gin, has become a singing, dancing act of faith for members of the Yavapai College Performing Arts Department. With strong lead actors, a cleverly used ensemble and a story of scope and sass, it seemed the perfect 2020 finale for a college that specializes in challenging, large-cast musicals. So they booked the show, cast the flappers, and before you could say “Covid-19” the pandemic shut ‘em down like Eliot Ness.
“We were three weeks away from [technical rehearsal],” Director Nanette Hofer recalls on how the escalating event closures nibbled closer and closer to the show’s April 2020 premiere before consuming it whole. “We had a half-baked set in the tent that everybody just left — because you had to. Everything just stopped, including the actors and actresses.” The 40-person cast lost most of its chorus members, half the wigs it ordered, and any idea of when, or whether, the show would return.
“The chorus tells the story in Chicago. You need a strong chorus.” Hofer says. “Thank God I held onto my leads.”
As spring turned to summer Hofer began to wonder whether a YCPAC Chicago would ever see the stage. “I had wanted to do it because YCPA is growing up.” She explains. “I loved doing the Disney shows and have great respect for our audience. I thought it was time for us to offer them a mature show, one that asks important questions, and one that’s well within the wheelhouse of any good regional theatre.”
Over the summer, while Delta raged, Hofer grew more determined that, somehow, Chicago would make it back. Her mindset shifted from ‘What can we salvage?’ of the production to ‘How can we reinvent it?’
“I adjusted the concept of the show. It actually gave my production team time to simmer and really think through everything we were doing, and how to make this show’s theme clearer.”
By autumn positivity rates were soaring, and public performance schedules remained iffy. Samuel French, the company holding the performance rights, had been bought out and the production contract had to be renegotiated. Hofer nevertheless recast the show and asked her actors to keep the faith. They have. “I have a men’s ensemble that practices on their own,” she says. “One of our leads — pipes of steel, but she was a little weak in the dance — took the two-year Covid break to work in the dance studio every single day.” The determination to keep Chicago alive could be felt in every member of the new ensemble.
“Actors and performers have to be hearty.” Hofer explains. “This production shows the passion, the investment, the commitment and the heartiness of the performers. You work and work and work until you can put it up.”
The waiting game
Actors understand the value of a quick, decisive exit, but Covid had no such theatrical training. Fall semester arrived with it still on the radar and chunks of the YCPAC schedule still in doubt. “So many people were sick in the fall.” Hofer remembers. “We didn’t know, at first, if the whole college would stay online. We wondered, for a while, if we could even do [the holiday musical] It’s a Wonderful Life.” In late December, Hofer, her production team, her long-suffering lead actors and her refurbished ensemble got the word: Come April, they would be able to paint the town.
And all that jazz
Most musical-theatre productions build to the excitement of opening night, then nervously await the verdict of audiences and critics. For this production of Chicago, opening night will be a victory all its own. Wading through a global pandemic, Hofer says, has given the performers more depth, and has made its designers and production team more thoughtful. They look forward to standing in the light again, asking those important questions, and bringing the whole story home.
“I’m actually glad for all of it.” Hofer says. “There are hidden blessings in why things happen. Despite the crazy details and new, well, everything, it’s going to end up a better show.”
Chicago opens Thursday night April 14 and will run through April 24, with Thursday through Saturday performances at 7pm and 3pm matinees on Sundays. (Please note that the Friday April 15 performance will begin at 8pm.) Tickets start at $25 for adults and $10 for youth under 18. Note that due to its mature themes, the show is recommended for ages 13 and up. YCPAC is at 1100 E. Sheldon St. in Prescott. For reservations or more information please call the ticket office at 928-776-2000 or visit ycpac.com.