It's a little-known fact now, but when the musical "Chicago" made its Broadway debut in 1975, it wasn't much of a hit, running less than a thousand performances. It only became a smash musical and movie when it was revived decades later.
That's because it was way ahead of its time, said Conni Ross, who is co-directing a revival of the play for Columbia's Silhouette Stages that opens Friday, May 24.
"In the director's notes, one of the things I wrote was, 'This show is as relevant now as it was when it was written,' " said Ross, who is sharing directorial duties with her frequent collaborator Debbie Mobley. "But it was originally not that well received."
"Chicago" didn't catch on originally because it was thought to be too cynical a look at how the criminal justice system and media interact. It tells of a 1920s-era chorus girl, Roxie Hart, who murders her cheating husband and then rides the wave of publicity from the trial to become a showbiz headliner.
In today's cable-news era, the show has started to seem prescient, especially after characters like "Long Island Lolita" Amy Fischer and Lorena Bobbit became celebrities for their real-life violent acts.
"It ran a somewhat respectable length of time originally, but people didn't get it," Ross said. "They brought it back and did a little revamping and changed the style of the show and it was a hit."
Now, she said, people can't seem to get enough of it. "It's still on Broadway, it's still in the West End of London and it has still got touring companies all over."
"Chicago" finally won two Tony Awards when it was brought back to Broadway in 1997. It also became a hit on the big screen in 2002 where it starred Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
What is it about this story that people find so intriguing? Ross has her own ideas.
"We really and truly seem to find a fascination with people who are doing things that most of us would not consider doing," she said. "You can't turn the news on nowadays without seeing somebody doing something terrible and people going, 'Wow, look at that!' It's kind of a sad statement, I suppose."
The production of "Chicago" represents a move into more ambitious territory for the 8-year-old troupe. Silhouette Stages was originally founded as Shadow Block Productions by Columbia drama teacher/actor/director Mo Dutterer as a way to showcase lesser-known musicals for local audiences.
Dutterer himself will make a rare return to the stage this time in the role of defense lawyer Billy Flynn.
With last year's production of the Broadway favorite "The Drowsy Chaperone," also directed by Ross and Mobley, the troupe began to expand its scope and flex its artistic muscle.
"Debbie and I wanted to tackle something at the level of 'Drowsy Chaperone' and felt 'Chicago' was a great fit for us this year," Ross said. "We liked being able to bring in new actors, and some of them are also great dancers."
Ross says a record number of actors came to audition for "Chicago" — a situation that is bittersweet for the troupe.
"We turned away a lot of people this time," Ross admits. "It's hard for the folks that don't get cast, but it's great for Silhouette Stages because we're truly evolving quite a following both in the audience and on stage. That's what we were shooting for."
In all, the production will feature 24 actors, which is around the same size cast the troupe had for its largest production, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Still, it's more actors than 'Chicago' was written for, Ross said.
What Ross and Mobley have done is beefed up the number of chorus girls and ensemble members.
"It's such a strong show for the lead actors that we wanted the ensemble to be strong and have a chance to really play some of the roles to the hilt," Ross said. "So far, they're doing a great job."
After "Chicago" closes, Silhouette Stages will host another of its Cabaret Nights on Saturday, June 18, at 6:30 p.m., in Slayton House in the Wilde Lake Village Center. Actors and musicians of all ages are invited to perform. To get a performance application, email email@example.com.
Silhouette Stages will present the musical "Chicago" Fridays-Saturdays, May 27-28 and June 3-4, at 8 p.m., and Sundays May 29 and June 5 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. in the Slayton House Theater in the Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia. Tickets are $18 general, $15 for senior citizens and students. Call 410-637-5289 or go to http://www.silhouettestages.com.