The set for TheatreVCU's production of “Chicago” is an impressive multilevel marvel, flanked on either side by serious-looking steel cages. While recent reimaginings of the murderously cynical musical have gone all spare and impressionistic with their staging, director Patti D'Beck seems to be reaching for something grander, grittier, or at the very least, bigger.
This approach is consistent with D'Beck's growing body of Richmond-area work, typified by the extravagant Barksdale production of “Guys and Dolls,” which drew more than 10,000 theatergoers downtown last summer to watch gamblers and showgirls sing and dance with invigorating abandon. Beyond its commercial success, “Guys and Dolls” was a critical smash, earning eight Richmond Theatre Critics Circle nominations. After “Chicago” opens, D'Beck will throw herself into preparations for this summer's splashy musical for the Barksdale's “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Not surprisingly, the woman directing this string of big-cast, many-moving-parts musicals is a bundle of energy, flitting onstage during rehearsals to guide actors through dance routines or enthusiastically counting out song tempos. Get her talking and in a few minutes she can cover such wide-ranging stories as her audition for the original cast of “Chicago” back in 1975; her subsequent work with some of the biggest names in musical theater (Tommy Tune, Michael Bennett, “Chicago's” original choreographer Bob Fosse); and the slew of productions she's scheduled to direct well into 2010.
D'Beck started out as a dancer but made her mark as an associate choreographer in nearly a dozen Broadway hits, including “Grease!” (1994) and “Annie Get Your Gun” (1999). Ironically, it was a theatrical misfire that led to her coming to Virginia Commonwealth University. After a 2003 production of “The Miracle Worker” starring Hilary Swank fell apart before opening in New York, the fight choreographer she met during rehearsals, TheatreVCU Chairman David Leong, invited her to come to Richmond as a guest artist. It wasn't long before she realized she wanted to stay.
“It feels like home here,” D'Beck says. “I love the faculty, and all of us [professors] are encouraged to go out in the world and work, and bring what we learn back to the students.” But it isn't just the students who benefit from this arrangement. “I know much more about directing now thanks to the teaching and coaching I do with students,” she says. “I work better and more specifically.”
D'Beck says working with young talent doesn't change how she approaches a play. “I wouldn't direct ‘Chicago’ any differently if I was doing it in New York or with the Barksdale or anywhere else,” she says. “I haven't dumbed anything down. I let [the students] know up front what they are getting into: They're working their butts off.”
In a town where the same faces show up repeatedly in shows, D'Beck also facilitates the crossover of young college stars into the professional scene. One of the leads of “Chicago,” VCU graduate student Maggie Marlin, will play the title character in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a role most famously inhabited by Julie Andrews in the 1967 film version.
Barksdale's artistic director, Bruce Miller, lauds D'Beck's ability to move fluidly between national, regional and collegiate theater. “Patti has such a diverse and highly developed vocabulary that she's gained from her years in musical theater,” he says. “She knows exactly how to make something look like Fosse, for instance, but she isn't satisfied with that. She's always challenging herself to go further.”
“When you work with someone with Patti's experience, the expectation is that you're going to get a bit of a diva,” Miller continues. “What you get with her is the exact opposite.”
D'Beck's working philosophy bears that out: “Whomever I'm working with, my job is to make them look good.” S
“Chicago” plays at VCU's Singleton Center, 922 Park Ave., April 9-26. Tickets are $8-$20. 828-6026.