Millennial Theatre Company’s ‘Chicago’ has murderous dames — and stunt casting

“Chicago” is the second-longest running show in Broadway history.

The touring production has made many laps around the country, and the John Kander / Fred Ebb / Bob Fosse musical also spawned a 2002 film version that won six Academy Awards, including best picture.

That familiarity can be a double-edged sword, according to Joe Asente, artistic director of the Millennial Theatre Company, which will stage the musical for four performances at the Ford Family Recital Hall.

“With the source material comes certain expectations,” Asente said. “And the movie audience, there’s a very dedicated audience for the film version. We wanted to make sure we meet the expectations of those people as well create something original to ourselves.”

As an example, Asente said the “Cell Block Tango” number is built around using six chairs like the Broadway version, but choreographer Makayla McIntosh has added some different choreography and incorporated dancers in the background (similar to the movie) who act out the deadly stories the performers are telling about the crimes that landed them in jail. Asente is directing the show with Savannah Florkowski as musical director.

They did borrow one element that’s been vital to the longevity of the show on Broadway and on the road — a bit of stunt casting.

When strong early ticket sales encouraged promoter Sunrise Entertainment to add a fourth performance, Asente invited Rust Belt Theater Company founder Robert Dennick Joki to play prison matron Mama Morton, who sings the song “When You’re Good to Mama.” Sydney Thomas plays the role the first three nights.

“When we had the opportunity to add the Saturday performance, we thought long and hard about what we could do to spice up the performance for that one day,” he said. “‘Chicago’ has been known for bringing in celebrity guest stars, both for the Broadway run and the national tour. We thought who better than Rob Joki, who is the epitome of local theater.”

Not surprisingly, Joki and Thomas play the character very differently.

“Our biggest hurdle is to get the rest of the cast not to laugh,” Asente said.

The musical tells the story of two women, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, who are accused of murder in the title city and quickly become media celebrities with the help of headline-chasing attorney Billy Flynn. Rachel Ruggieri and Rosie Bresson play Velma and Roxie, respectively, and Landon Talbert is Flynn.

While the story is set in the 1920s, Asente believes, if anything, the tale is more timely today than when it first debuted on Broadway in the mid-’70s.

“We’ve been trying to get the rights for a couple years now,” he said. “For me and a couple other board members, it’s one of our favorite shows. It has a strong modern-day connection and is relevant to the millennial generation. I remember listening to cast album when I was younger. This was one of the first CDs I listened to where I didn’t want to skip over any of the songs.”

Asente wasn’t the only one who felt that way. About 75 people turned out for auditions, including many current and recent theater students from Youngstown State University, Kent State University and the University of Mount Union.

The rest of the cast includes T. Hanes, Tylor Zuniga, Liz Amstutz, Savannah Teter, Emelia Sherin, Hannah Stephens, Rachael Thorn, Anna Anders, Trevor Patchen, Ben Mowrer, Rebecca Williams, Nathaniel Ams, Stefon Funderburke, William MacNeil, Mark Williams, Aubrie Morrison, Hailey Gelzheiser, Sarah Macciomei, Mia Matthews, Hannah Hall, Gina Marafiote, Lohgan Talbert, Madisyn McVay, Seairra Porterfield, Emma James and Lexee Garrett.

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