This isn’t a review as that would be rather inappropriate given the author is part of the band. This is instead a view from behind the wall of City Lights’ current production of “Chicago” – behind the wall because that’s where the clarinet player sits. The experience is quite different “working” at City Lights than it is attending the opening gala intent on writing a review of the production.
Producer and City Lights Executive Artistic Director Lisa Mallette is always warm and friendly to patrons when they come see the shows, but she’s just as welcoming and encouraging to the members of the company. She clearly sets out to make City Lights a rewarding place to work as a performer.
A small theater physically, the backstage area is compressed, the dressing rooms and green room sitting directly behind the stage, curtained off to keep from being visible from the house. In fact, watching the transformation of rehearsal space into performance space was fascinating as the show headed into its final days before opening. Curtained hallways appeared, and platforms and staircases sprung up between rehearsals thanks to Ron Gasparinetti’s craftsmanship.
As with most shows, there’s a lot going on backstage – the cast, crew, band, and staff forming a production family of sorts, and in this case an extremely congenial one. All bring forward what they do best as artists to both support their fellow performers and to add to the success of the production as a whole. The company members banter playfully before each show awaiting the call to places to wow that night’s (or afternoon’s) audience. One “merry murderess” is also a massage therapist and has her chair in the green room as she often gives fellow company members a quick tune-up during the downtime. The camaraderie is endearing.
Being the intimate performance space that is City Lights, this production of “Chicago” is somewhat unique in a number of ways. First, aside from a few carefully crafted filmed segments, it’s entirely acoustic. Neither the band nor the actors are amplified. Second, per Director Donna Sheer’s choice, the standard Fosse black Spandex is absent. Instead, the actors appear in period appropriate costumes (costumes seen by the clarinet player only before or after the show or as actors race by the band at times).
Another big difference from most productions of “Chicago” is the scoring, making this a far more musically challenging show to play. The standard touring orchestration is 13 pieces, but at City Lights, due to space limitations and budget constraints, the band is a tight four-piece ensemble consisting of piano, bass, drums, and clarinet. The pianist plays from the score, and yours truly plays a clarinet book penned by Musical Director Michael Johnson covering bits and pieces originally intended for brass, reeds, strings, and even keyboard leaving little downtime once the figurative curtain goes up.
The result is a joy to perform each night of our six week run with friendships established making the time pass quickly, perhaps too quickly. But for now, the “Chicago” company members are enjoying the magic they create.
Where: City Lights Theater Company located at: 529 South Second Street, San Jose, CA95112.
When: Thursdays – Sundays through 26 August.
See cltc.org or call 408-295-4200 for more information.