by James Buckley
I caught Otto Layman’s Santa Barbara High School musical production of Chicago last Friday night. And, it was terrific. It was better than terrific. It was overwhelmingly good. I didn’t simply “enjoy” the show, I was bowled over by it, riddled with glee, sumptuously entertained, jubilantly absorbed... you get the picture.
Let’s start with the performers: Let’s start with, say, Camille Umoff, who takes on the role of Velma Kelly (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the movie version). Camille was Nancy in Janet Adderley’s Santa Barbara Youth Ensemble Theater production of Oliver! at the age of eleven. She is now thirteen and a freshman... a freshman!... at SBHS. Camille has already developed the vocal power of a veteran Broadway singer, the acting chops of a seasoned professional, and a stage presence so self-assured that all I can fathom is she was either born onstage or has been living backstage unbeknownst to her parents and/or teachers for so long that she simply feels right at home amid the moving furniture, the live orchestra, curtains going up and down, endless rehearsals, and the cacophony of set-building. That there is an audience at the other end of the dark on some nights is purely coincidental. When she appears at the beginning of the show belting out “All That Jazz,” backed up by John Douglas’s onstage orchestra, dancing and singing with the well-rehearsed troupe of chorus girls, well, let’s just say the audience became aware early on that it was in for a sizeable treat.
Sable Layman is an older, wiser, more mature performer than Camille. She’s a sophomore. She is also Otto Layman’s daughter, so while she may not have been born backstage, she is probably more familiar with Oscar Hammerstein than she is with Justin Bieber. Sable plays Roxie Hart, the innocent-but-guilty would-be nightclub star with a lover and a gun. She follows “All That Jazz” with a lively coquettish version of “Funny Honey,” during which she explains why she shot Fred Casely, and why her husband, Amos, should take the blame. Her performance as a marionette with Billy Flynn pulling the strings in “We Both Reached for the Gun” is a tour de force of synchronized mannequin manipulation.
Aaron Linker is Amos Hart and when the young Mr. Linker finishes sing- ing “Cellophane Man,” and before walking offstage turns to the audience and says, “I hope I haven’t taken up too much of your time,” we absolutely believe he means it, that he’s not acting. Aaron’s was a subtle but stellar performance.
Grant Bower plays Billy Flynn, the lawyer-who’ll-win-your-freedom-for- five-thousand-bucks. He’s a sleazy, dapper, egotistical nightmare of a man who happens to be the best defense lawyer in town and knows exactly how to steer a jury and the press in his client’s direction. Grant plays him to his sleaziest, smarmiest best.
Mary Cusimano, now a senior (one of only a handful), is Mama Morton, the matronly orderly in charge of her fellow prisoners. When she sings “When You’re Good to Mama, Mama’s Good To You,” and proves it by cadging cigarettes, perfumes, stockings, and other treats for the girls in exchange for cash, well, we know once again that we are in the hands of a real talent. Mary played The Lady Of The Lake in last year’s hugely entertaining Monty Python’s Holy Grail, and delivers an equally powerful performance as Mama Morton.
Space limitations compel me to wrap it up, but other standouts include Rio Salazar as the amoral, impressionable, and gullible gossip columnist Mary Sunshine; Hailey Simmons is a refreshing presence as Go To Hell Kitty, Andrew Gutierrez is an appropriately arrogant Fred Casely, all the performers in the Cell Block Tango (“He Had It Comin’”), including Hailey Turner, Ciara Tolliver, Libby Sestak, Mae Pendergast, Claudia Fanaro, and Hailey Simmons (how the heck Otto and choreographer Christina McCarthy coax these kinds of performances out of 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds is a veritable mystery), should take separate bows for their exhilarating and precise performances. I’ve probably left some people out who deserve honorable mentions, but let it be known far and wide that Chicago is playing at the SBHS Theatre, 700 East Anapamu Street (888-979-3667) this Thursday, Friday, Saturday, November 7, 8, and 9, at 7 pm, and again on Sunday, November 10, at 2 pm.
You’d be a fool to miss it.