Beyond the bright lights, the extravagant sets and the dazzling costumes, the award-winning Shelton High School drama club is a family.
And that bond — forged with countless hours together rehearsing lines, mastering dance moves and just enjoying time together in the theater world each loves so much — was on display yet again this past week as the SHS drama club presented Chicago: High School Edition, based on the well-known classic musical.
“To be a part of this is so very rewarding,” said drama club adviser Joe Sedlock, who assumed the club’s reins 10 years ago after a successful run as the Shelton High boys’ basketball coach.
“Of course, the performers’ families are happy to watch their kids, and the Shelton community is extremely supportive,” added Sedlock, “but the most important thing is the lifetime friendships that are developed here. It really is like a family here. The bonds are real.”
This year’s production of Chicago is quite a turn from past shows, which have been more upbeat, high school musical type productions. But directors Katherine Sedlock, Justin Zenchuk and Fiona Bryson sought an edgier show, and these high school performers could not have been happier.
“This is a totally different style for us … very Fosse, very sultry,” said junior Kyla Hackett, who played Roxie Hart. “We obviously didn’t know the style well, but we have executed it very well.”
“There are other productions of Chicago around the area, but ours is just special in its own way,” added Hackett. “We just have such a great cast bond, a great orchestra bond, and a great bond with the directors and the adviser.”
Chicago is the top, longest-running American musical in Broadway history. With an iconic book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, Chicago is the winner of six Tony Awards.
Set amidst the razzle-dazzle decadence of the 1920s, Chicago is the story of Roxie Hart, a housewife and nightclub dancer who maliciously murders her on-the-side lover after he threatens to walk out on her. Desperate to avoid conviction, she dupes the public, the media and her rival cellmate, Velma Kelly, by hiring Chicago’s slickest criminal lawyer, Billy Flynn, to transform her malicious crime into a barrage of sensational headlines, the likes of which might just as easily be ripped from today’s tabloids.
And Shelton High’s performers certainly did justice to the Chicago legacy with a performance that left the audience of friends, family and community members in awe — and on their feet with applause, acknowledging these students for their truly inspiring effort.
“I love it so much,” said senior Molly Scalenghe, who played Velma Kelly. “This is more fun than anything. We always come to rehearsal ready to have fun, and that’s what makes a good show.”
Scalenghe said actors rehearsed Monday through Saturday, at least three hours a day, that was until tech week, when performers basically went to school and rehearsed, with a few hours of sleep when possible. And she said that parent volunteers were even more involved, helping with anything needed to make the show go off without a hitch.
“Planning for this show has been exciting, it’s a change of pace from shows in the past, and we were all ready for the change,” added Scalenghe.
Matt Sullivan, a senior who has been involved with theater since he was 4, found his role of “slimy lawyer” Billy Flynn challenging — as he had to memorize a lengthy script along with mastering mannerisms and a speaking style foreign to him — but enjoyable.
“This was the part I sought,” Sullivan said of the Flynn character. “For me, yes, there was lots of nervousness, but it so very rewarding. Stepping out of my comfort zone and into this role was a huge deal for me.”
“I personally see acting as a way to get away from the real world,” added junior Ainsley Lougal, who played Annie. “On stage, I’m a different person. It is an escape, and I like the spotlight. My freshman year with drama club, I was so nervous. Now I get on stage, and it more about having fun than about worrying about it.”
“I’m always so excited,” said senior Brenna Sastram, who plays the sassy “Mama” Morton. “I really love everyone coming and seeing everyone perform. It is very rewarding to please the audience. I enjoy seeing my friends and family, and they enjoy seeing me up there having fun.”
Sedlock said the choice of Chicago was edgier than in years’ past, but “we have an abundance of talented kids” In all, some 70 students are participating in some form in the production, according to Sedlock.
“Theater kids are a unique group,” said Sedlock. “They are a family. If they stay four years, I find that they generally stay for life.”
Sedlock said an incredible amount of work goes into such a production, which can cost anywhere between $30,000 to $50,000 on an annual basis, when factoring in set design and construction, costume purchases and securing the rights for the play itself.
“Rehearsals are great, but the actual performance is so rewarding,” said Sullivan. “I love being able to show all of my friends and family that this what I have been working on the last few months, and this is how amazing it looks.”
“All the hard work we’ve done the past few months, all the hard work of the parents and directors, the orchestra, it finally comes together, and it is so incredible,” said Lougal, who has been doing theater since age 7. “This year, people are really going to enjoy it, and be surprised. Chicago is different in what we have done before.”
And what the audience sees is brought to life by not only the actors and actresses but also the many volunteers who donate countless hours.
“The kids have 11 weeks of rehearsal, four times a week and Saturday, but the parents and volunteers that get involved are unbelievable,” said Sedlock. “They donate hundreds and hundreds of hours.”
Sedlock credited set builder Jim Welch, retired carpenter, who spent some 500 hours at the high school designing and creating the Chicago set.
“This does not work without his leadership,” said Sedlock.
The production is self-funded, with the club raising money through its December production of Adaptations — which last year involved more than 130 students — which raises half the money and gate receipts and concession sales during the performance.
“You cannot do proper theater at this level, worthy of entertaining the city, without spending that kind of money,” said Sedlock. “That is why the volunteers are so important to what we do here. Without them, we would not have this level of production.”
The drama club will once again be participating in The Stephen Sondheim Awards hosted by the Broadway Method Academy, Westport Country Playhouse and the Shubert Theater. The Stephen Sondheim Awards is a program which intends to shed light on excellent student achievement in high school musical theater. Last year, Shelton High School’s production of Legally Blonde was nominated for nine categories and won Best Choreography and Best Supporting Actor.
“Our time together as a theater family is a lot of fun, a lot of work,” said Sedlock, “but it is worth it.”