When Watertown High School Drama teacher Kacie Kirkpatrick picked Chicago as the spring musical, she hoped to generate excitement. Judging by the reception she got from her leads, she succeeded.
Chicago, the High School Edition, will hit the WHS stage on Feb. 28, 29 and March 1. Kirkpatrick began planning last spring, and news of her choice quickly reached Yeraz Kaligian, who will play Roxie Hart.
“I came into her classroom screaming,” Kaligian said. “I have loved this show since I was little. I had never seen it, but I listened (to the soundtrack) a lot.”
Kirkpatrick, who is in her third year at WHS, said Chicago made a good choice for the talents of her student actors.
“I wanted to find a show that had some very strong female roles. We have some female upperclassmen who are strong singers and dancers,” Kirkpatrick said. “Also, I wanted to bring people in and have a really good time.”
The play, which is set in the Windy City during the Jazz Age, debuted in 1975 (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Ebb and Bob Fosse). It was revived in the 1990s and has been on Broadway ever since. Chicago was also made into a film in 2002 starring Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma Kelly) and Renee Zellweger (Roxie Hart).
Senior Toni Carton, who plays Velma Kelly, said the show is tailored for a high school audience.
“The movie is graphic,” she said. “This is the school edition.”
Kaligian said she thinks the play will be enjoyable for the audience, whether they have seen it before or not.
“If someone doesn’t even know the show, or even if they are familiar, they will love it. It says a lot without being obvious about it,” Kaligian said.
The story touches on subjects such as corruption, administration of justice and the celebrity criminal.
At a recent rehearsal, Carton and Kaligian came in early to work on their numbers with Kirkpatrick. There are 12 numbers in the play, all of which have choreography. That is just fine for the two leads.
Carton has danced for years, including styles featured heavily in Chicago.
“It is a great show to do because there is a lot of jazz and tap,” Carton said.
She is relatively new to being on stage, though not a newbie to theater.
“I starting doing tech and fell in love with lighting design,” Carton said. “I did the lighting with this the show. I am hoping to get into Ithaca College and do lighting design with a minor in drama so I can still perform.”
Carton has been in two prior WHS productions, as Officer Lockstock in Urinetown and she also appeared in Peter & the Starcatcher in the fall.
Kaligian, on the other hand, has been acting since elementary school.
“I started acting and singing because my friends did it,” Kaligian said. “Dance wasn’t a a big part of the shows when I was little.”
Her first play was when she was in fifth grade, and Kaligian has been the lead in a number of performances with the Watertown Children’s Theatre, including Arielle in Footloose. At WHS she has played Alice in Alice in Wonderland and Little Sally in Urinetown.
“My favorite was Footloose,” Kaligian said. “I did have red cowboy boots.”
She too wants to continue her pursuit of acting in college.
“I am going to major in theatre, I want this to be my life,” said Kaligian, who wants to apply to conservatory programs.
Being a triple threat — acting, singing and dancing — can be challenging. Both Carton and Kaligian said dancing help learn the lines and the songs, though they have different approaches.
“I remember the lines because of the physicality,” Carton said, “I think the movement is the easiest part.”
Kaligian said: “I’m not a dancer. I am trying to learn, but it is not what I started out doing. I associate the lines with what we are doing with the songs.”
Kirkpatrick, who is director, is being assisted by musical director Dan Wulf, who is also the Grade 6-12 Math Coordinator in Watertown. She gets help with choreography from Nick Panagiotou, who went to Suffolk University with Kirkpatrick and is a dance captain with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.
The rest of the team behind Chicago is made up of students.
“There’s an incredible team mentality, with the actors, musicians, and the crew members,” Kirkpatrick said.
There are about 25 students on stage, a full band and the tech crew. Kirkpatrick said students play big roles both on and off stage.
“I treat them as professionals,” Kirkpatrick said. “Andrea (McAdam) runs rehearsals and everything that takes place behind the scenes, and she is an 18-year-old student.”
McAdam, a senior, started working as stage manager last year, but she began “teching” in seventh grade.
“I was the student director for Miss (Abby) Casey for Lion King,” McAdam said.
With the show still weeks away, McAdam was calm during rehearsal, but as the curtain time nears she becomes more focused on business.
“Around tech week is when I start to get stressed and I get stern,” McAdam said.
McAdam hopes to continue pursuing her interest in stage managing, but also has an interest in the visual arts, so she hopes to be a double major in graphic design and theater management.
Chicago will have three performances over one weekend, but with all the preparation that goes into a musical, Kirkpatrick hopes to expand the run in coming years.
“The goal in the future is to have two weekends of performances,” Kirkpatrick said. “This is a smaller school. It is a matter of community interest and student interest.”
As part of growing the program, Watertown High School now has two drama classes, Foundations of Drama in the fall and Advance Acting in the spring. There were 21 students in the Foundations of Drama class, Kirkpatrick said.
In a small school, finding enough people interested can be challenge. Luckily many have multiple interests. Carton and Kaligian are both part of the Environmental Club and the National Honors Society. Kirkpatrick even has some athletes in the play who have also caught the acting bug.
Students gain confidence from being on stage, and they learn about teamwork, Kirkpatrick said. She also teaches special education, and said that students with special needs can also benefit from being in drama.
As far as getting community interest, Kirkpatrick said she hopes the audiences for WHS’s Chicago enjoy the experience.
“I hope the audience can go, “Wow!” these are some amazing actors, incredible scenery, with young people working together to put something like this together,” Kirkpatrick said. “Theater is a great way for people to experience things together.”
Chicago will be performed at Watertown High School, 50 Columbia St., on Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday Feb. 29 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 1 at 2 p.m. Pre-show tickets are available at the school for $7 and tickets are $10 at the door.