A classically trained ballerina certainly doesn’t scream “1920s scheming murderess.” But that’s exactly who will lead the New Theatre’s upcoming production of “Chicago.”
Dionne Figgins, who was in the original Broadway casts of “Motown the Musical” and “Memphis,” plays Velma Kelly in the sultry tale of two killers on trial in Chicago.
Figgins originally trained at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington, D.C., the same school where Chita Rivera, the original Velma, trained.
“Chita Rivera is my idol,” Figgins said. “She’s one of the people I look up to. Because she’s a singer and a dancer, and definitely a dancer first, the roles that she has done are definitely roles I could see myself doing.”
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And indeed she will in “Chicago,” running Thursday through Sept. 18 at the New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park.
The story follows Roxie Hart, who in the mid-1920s is arrested for killing her lover. In the Cook County Jail, she meets Velma Kelly, another suspected killer, and the two try to outdo each other as the media cover their cases.
“They’re two women, and they’re two women living in a society that caters toward men,” Figgins said. “They’re able to step out on their own and take the stage.”
“Chicago,” by lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander, a Kansas City native, leans heavily on the vaudeville styles of the 1920s. The 1975 original production employed choreography by Bob Fosse, and eight-time New Theatre choreographer Ricky Hinds acknowledges those styles in the production’s 22 musical numbers he choreographed, each with its own distinctive aesthetic.
“I’ve been trying to honor what it is and what it was founded on, but it’s now 2016 and we have different types of dancers,” Hinds said. “We’ve been able to find our own language that’s given us some liberties to make it feel fresh and new and really fit our version of this story.”
While the characters from the show are criminals, Hinds said the New Theatre’s production emphasizes their humanity and vulnerability. They may have committed crimes, but they were crimes of passion. When the “six merry murderesses” describe their transgressions in “Cell Block Tango,” they make the situation appealing to the audience, saying “you would have done the same.”
“Everyone has that kind of dark within them,” Figgins said. “It’s just how we are. All of these women have done terrible things, yet they’re still people and there’s still a humanity to them. These people have made a mistake; that doesn’t mean you can’t love them or like them.”
In the show, the media frenzy around the crimes certainly helps to humanize the characters. Kelly and Hart manipulate the media into showing them as innocent victims of circumstance, and the public eats it up. Hinds compared it to the popularity of the TV show “Orange Is the New Black.”
“It’s fascinating; people are intrigued by it,” he said. “The world in terms of the female prison, that kind of gets swept under the rug. You never really hear about these women, but they’re there and it’s happening.”
This year’s production is edgier and darker than the typical musical fare offered by the 629-seat dinner theater. Hinds said he’s been “blown away” by the amount of talent in the cast, which includes actors and dancers from Broadway as well as local artists.
“We have never had this strength of dancing like we have on this show,” he said. “It’s just a group of heavy-hitters, and that’s not just on the dance front. This show will definitely raise the bar of what the expectation is.”
While the show gives Figgins a chance to showcase the skills she’s honed as a Broadway triple-threat, she thinks audience members will enjoy the plot the most, even if they’re a little uncomfortable.
“There’s something about the story, because we’re actually talking about something that we’re dealing with,” she said. “We’re talking about women in prison, we’re talking about murderous celebrities: These are real issues of the day that we should talk about.
“There’s something a little dangerous about it,” she added. “It gives you goosebumps, and it gives you that sensation that’s a little dangerous, but who doesn’t like a little danger?”
“Chicago” at the New Theatre
The show runs Thursday through Sept. 18 at the New Theatre Restaurant, 9229 Foster St., Overland Park. Tickets start at $36 and include a buffet meal. See NewTheatre.com for more.