BY LIZA MITCHELL
When history repeats itself, it often casts the shadow of its former self in the light of the newer generation. Chicago is one of those rare productions that maintains an aesthetic that is true to its original period yet accessible to modern audiences. Its ability to transcend time and trends earned Chicago the distinction as the longest running musical on Broadway.
The FSCJ Artist Broadway Series presents Chicago May 17-20 at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts (www.artistseriesjax.org). Set in the legendary city during the roaring “jazz hot” 20s, Chicago tells the story of two rival vaudevillian murderesses locked up in Cook County Jail. Nightclub star Velma Kelly is serving time for killing her husband and sister after finding the two in bed together while chorus girl Roxie Hart murdered the lover she’d been cheating with behind her husband’s back.
In a bid for freedom, Velma enlists the help of prison matron Mama Morton and slick lawyer Billy Flynn, who turns her incarceration into a media frenzy that Velma hopes will pave the way for a showbiz comeback. Roxie shows up and upstages Velma, stealing her 15 minutes of fame and forcing both women to fight even harder for what they want.
“Velma finds herself in this situation with this other woman who comes in and steals her limelight. She uses her showbiz ways to try and manipulate Roxie to come on board, like ‘hey, you and I can do something together. I need you just as much as you need me’,” says Terra MacLeod, who plays the role of Velma Kelly.
MacLeod has been a part of the Chicago story for over 15 years. Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, she performed with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and studied in NYC at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Manhattan. She auditioned at a 2003 casting call for the French production of Chicago, earning the role of Kelly.
MacLeod returned to Montreal to star in the world French premiere of Chicago with the Just for Laughs Festival. With the success of the Montreal run, Chicago was brought to Paris at the Casino De Paris where it ran for six months and was nominated for the prestigious Moliere Award. In the summer of 2004, MacLeod made her Broadway debut with Chicago and has since performed as Velma Kelly all over the world with the current international touring company.
“It’s really a timeless piece. We get asked a lot about why we think it’s still relevant, and it really does translate all over the world with themes that people can relate to. And there is also the aspect of the choreography, the music and the history of the piece,” says MacLeod. “So many amazing artists have portrayed these roles. I’m grateful to be a part of this legacy and the history it represents. The songs are iconic, the choreographer is legendary and there’s something interconnected in that. There aren’t a lot of pieces that you can say that about. Chicago, to me, has an essence and an energy that just translates no matter where we are.”
History is a valuable commodity to Chicago. The story is based on historical accounts of the murder trials of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan as reported by playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins in 1924 for the Chicago Tribune. For Macleod, it’s a uniquely gratifying experience to stage the piece now when there is so much momentum in women supporting other women.
“It’s very interesting to be doing this show at this time in the climate we’re facing. It’s very different than a few years ago,” she says. “You have these two women in a powerful position. They are murderesses, and I don’t want to glorify that. However, to recognize that even in their hardships they rise above and try to find value in what they are living. There is a lot of power in that. Whether it’s morally right or wrong, I let the audience decide.”
Velma and Roxie also understood the intrinsic value of manipulating the media for their own benefit. Performing Chicago in an era that manufactures celebrities through the social media machine, MacLeod often points to the parallels during talk backs with college students. Imagine a Kardashian murder trial in Prohibition era or Velma Kelly with a Go Fund Me account. It’s a different means to the same end.
“It’s no different than what their generation is facing. What’s making headlines? Who is doing what to get noticed? It’s all about branding,” says MacLeod. “We see that with YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, how many likes do I have? How many people recognize me? People are becoming overnight sensations based on the amount of attention they receive on social media. I think that’s why it speaks even more to an audience today.”
To play the part of a woman on trial for murder, MacLeod had to tap into her desperation to understand and convey her point of view in a way that audiences could relate to. The real Belva Gaertner was described as a possessive lover who threatened men if they left her or wronged her in some way. Yet both Belva and her theatrical counterpart Velma both manage to capture the heart of their audience who root for her in the face of her atrocious actions.
“She really does feel that she was wronged. Whether she blacked out and remembers or not, she blacked out. She has that alibi memorized down to a T. It’s not my job to judge her and have an opinion about her. It’s my job to tell the story and to honor the truth that character genuinely feels,” she says. “At the end of the day, she wants to get back to her life. Velma and Roxie do come to the realization that they are more powerful together than apart. And aren’t we all.”