For one weekend, Flagstaff’s newest youth theater and arts organization is bringing vaudeville to town, coating Coconino Mini Auditorium in local razzle dazzle.
Flagstaff Arts Music and Education, FAME for short, has, with a cast of 25 young people from high schools across town, been hard at work perfecting the famous Broadway musical "Chicago."
Set in the “jazz hot” '20s, "Chicago" hardly needs introducing; The Fred Ebb musical, whose 1975 Broadway premier featured the likes of "Cabaret" talent Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, tells the story of two rival vaudevillian murderesses, Roxie (played by BASIS junior Nona Hungate) and Velma (17-year-old Northland Preparatory Academy student, Rosie Ryan), who are both locked up in Cook County Jail. Velma, in for killing her husband and sister after finding them in bed together, and Roxie who has been locked up for shooting her lover, form the nexus of a plot rife with celebrity fame, skeevy lawyers and intense rivalry--making it a scintillating and infamous piece etched into the musical theater consciousness.
“We wanted something edgy and provocative,” said Jane Marks, president of FAME and professor of biology at Norther Arizona University. “The kids didn’t want to do anymore Disney.”
Marks is one of many spearheading the nonprofit, which is set to receive an official 501 (c) (3) status within the next weeks and will be recognized with a ribbon cutting attended by Mayor Coral Evans on Aug. 17.
In the spring of this year, FAME's production team--made up of Marks, her husband Bruce Hungate, Egle Rucci, Sara Ryan, Crystal Rogers, Gina Byars and Sandi and Eric Ridley--scouted cast members from high schools across town for the organization's first production.
“We started to come up with the idea in January, then held our first rehearsals in March,” Ryan said.
Ryan and Hungate are both musical directors for the piece. Ryan is a member of the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra and a music instructor at various local kindergartens and preschools.
She and Rucci, like Marks, expressed enthusiasm not only for the choice of musical, but for the role the students played in its selection.
“We wanted something different, that the kids could pick, and they picked 'Chicago,'” Rucci said.
Rucci, a professional classical ballet dancer by trade with experience in Musical Theatre, along with Crystal Rogers make up the choreographic portion of the production team.
Together they have been directing the cast in the angular, syncopated style singular to jazz dancer Bob Fosse. Another arguably defining asset of "Chicago" are Fosse’s a-symmetrical lines; often in direct opposition to classical dance moves, he swaps perfect ballet 5th position turnout for turned-in feet, replaces pointe with jazz that is low and flat.
"We've made sure to leave in the original Fosse moves," said Ryan.
Costuming will also follow in the proverbial footsteps of the classic "Chicago," leaving no shortage of fishnets and general. The set, on the other hand, has been realized as something simpler, Marks said.
"We kept it minimal to focus on the kids' talent."
Each cast member brings a specific skillset, said Marks, and given the multi-disciplinary nature of the musical, each has dipped their toes into new artistic realms.
“Some of the kids are dancers, some singers and some have done theater,” Marks said. “I think every one of them has been challenged by this.”
Nona Hungate who just began her junior year at BASIS has, like her co-star and close friend, Rosie Ryan, been involved in theater since grade school. She helped to direct her peers in the beginning of the show, something she said presented its difficulties but was ultimately rewarding.
“A lot of them didn't see me as an authority because I’ve known so many of them for so long,” she said. "But it ended up being really fun."
Hungate is not the only student involved in the directorial side. Ryan has also had a directorial role and Aviel Fitch, who plays Harry, was responsible for directing the tap choreography.
“That’s where the 'education' part of FAME comes in and what we hope to do in the future," said Ryan. "What a cool thing for the kids to experience, to be able to direct and be part of something so big.”
And the opportunities for young people to be involved will not end with "Chicago." As part of its initiative, FAME will host workshops throughout the year, including one on creative writing and others distributed across various artistic disciplines. The organization will also host gatherings with local environmental organizations, making it a multifaceted service for young people.
“Our next event is a workshop with Emmy-nominated actor Gordon Clapp. He'll be doing a one-man Robert Frost play and some of our kids participate in the workshop with him," Marks said.
As "Chicago" reaches its denouement, after Roxie goes to trial and Billy Flynn (played by BASIS sophomore Austin Rae) admits he only served as her lawyer for the money; after Velma's lover Amos leaves her and the two women join to sing "Hot Honey Rag;" after the lights fade and the crows disperse, the cast, who Marks said has formed great friendships over the last months, will look to its next production.
"We can't say what it'll be though, or others will copy it," Rucci joked.
Future FAME productions will host auditions open to all high schoolers. For more information on the organization as well as a full list of cast and crew, visit www.flagstaffcreate.org/.