by Charles Donelan
On a Monday in October at 4:30 in the afternoon, the theater at Santa Barbara High School buzzes with half a dozen different constructive activities. And I do mean buzzes — and constructive — as one of the most noticeable things happening onstage is a young man welding. Not 20 feet from where this safety-hooded figure solders pieces of metal, a dance rehearsal with choreographer Christina McCarthy goes on. As the dancers in their sweats practice a combination, the giant tabloid newspapers with headlines about murder and scandal sit suspended overhead; suddenly, things start to make sense. We’re in Chicago — not the Windy City, but the Broadway show, which plays at Santa Barbara High School Theatre November 1-10. And we’re not through with the tour, because set designer Ingrid Holden has just walked up with a pair of ink- and blood-stained dresses — original costumes designed for this production by Lise Lange. Otto Layman, performing-arts chair at SBHS and the director behind Chicago, explains the concept. “These are based on Kafka’s story ‘In the Penal Colony.’ Like the prisoners in the story, who are tattooed to death with descriptions of their crimes, our prisoners are going to be wearing costumes covered in writing and newsprint. Their crimes are written on their costumes,” he says.
It’s a bold approach and a total departure from the standard, which is of course the iconic black fishnets and red lipstick associated with the show’s original choreographer Bob Fosse. And that’s Layman’s intention. He says this Chicago will not be “a Fosse knockoff or a movie homage,” referring to the 2002 film adaptation starring Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, which won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Under Layman, the Santa Barbara High theater program has become one of the most productive performing arts organizations in the city, with an average of four shows a year, including both serious straight plays like God of Carnage and The Glass Menagerie, the student-programmed Music of the Night, and two fully-staged musicals per year. “I don’t mind raising the money as long as I have the kids,” Layman explains, adding, “because I love the form of the musical.” The cast and crew typically spend eight weeks preparing the fall show and 10 on the show in the spring. It’s a massive effort that makes huge demands on virtually every member of the team, but then there’s always the cast party to look forward to, and then the excitement of casting for the next production.