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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

"Chicago" is dream come true for actresses

Sarah Laughland (left) and Ashley Campos (right) discuss their roles in
Sarah Laughland (left) and Ashley Campos (right) discuss their roles in "Chicago." (photo by Billie Wheeler)
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By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | August 31, 2016

When Ashley Campos (Velma) found out that Barter Theatre was doing "Chicago," she burst into tears. Sarah Laughland (Roxie) wasn't far behind her. "Chicago" had been on their bucket lists for years.

"It's the only show I've ever asked Rick for," Campos says. "Sometimes Rick will ask the company and staff what shows are we interested in when he's planning the next season. For years and years, the only show I asked for was "Chicago,' and we couldn't get the rights. So last year, I was working in the costume shop, Sean [her husband] came downstairs and said, "Rick wants to talk to you.' I went upstairs, and everyone was in the rehearsal hall. Rick pulled me to the middle of the floor and said, "We're talking about the rights to "Chicago' again,' and he had this sad look on his face. Then he said, "We got them.' I immediately burst into tears. So it's "The One.'"

Their excitement is palpable, and their dedication to challenging themselves to bringing their dream roles to life is apparent.

"I've felt a bit of Roxie since I was 8 and started singing the songs around the house," Laughland says. "Roxie is a millennial and wants everything now. Her world centers on her." Laughland takes Barter's approach to the show — its commentary on society and how media takes hold of us — and connects that to what she knows as a 25 year old who is glued to her phone and understands that being validated is important. She also did research on the real woman behind Roxie.

"You have to let go of any preconceived notions when developing a character. Every single person who has played this role has played it differently. You just fight mentally to forget them. Once you figure out who you are, it gets easier. Figuring out how Roxie navigates through this world, which gets upended on her and how that weighs on her and her need for validation. I've been figuring out that roller coaster. Honestly a lot of Roxie's challenges are things that I'm dealing with too," Laughland says.

Campos says Velma is based on a woman who owned a speakeasy and jazz club. She describes her as a "bombastic master of ceremonies. She called her customers "suckers.' She's in your face, a convivial abuser. Then you see what that means for today. With this production, we are sort of seeing how we can examine what is going on now: the media frenzy, how we get swept up in the emotions and the feel of things.

"Velma points the finger at it and demands the audience look to see how these people are being manipulated by Billy Flynn's fast-talking double talk and by the things that she's doing. She participates but holds the mirror up. You get insight through Velma. "Chicago' is really Roxie's story, and we help to tell her story.

"The thing that's fun about this is we can still give nods to the things that people have such vivid images of in their minds through some of the choreography. It's the good thing about a new production rather than being put into an ongoing revival. I don't have the same life experience that Chita Rivera had when she initiated the original or Bebe Neuwirth had when she initiated the revival. But one of the luxuries of being in a resident company is you get to push the boundaries," Campos says.

Laughland, Campos and Amanda Aldridge are working together on their choreography.

"Sarah and I have been working on the final number. We've been working with Amanda. It's her choreography, but the three of us have really worked closely together to make our dreams come true," Campos says.

Laughland continues, "She's given us the freedom to contribute. She's really receptive if I say "I've always wanted to do this dance move.' We've been like giddy schoolgirls working on the number."

"The music is this great jazzy, syncopated stuff. The choreography isn't just the Charleston. We've got some contemporary stuff. My opening number dress is inspired by Beyoncé. In true Barter fashion, we're going to make it our own and make our own statement," Campos says.

Their roles require them not only to be actors but also singers and dancers. They have been preparing for these roles their entire lives.

They both come from dance backgrounds. Laughland danced all her life but started studying seriously later. When she was a child, she was the "kid in the back who was off step. Mom told me I was the only one who was really feeling the music," she laughs. She became serious about ballet when she was in college. She says dance became her way into the theater, because theaters always need good dancers. She's fallen more in love with dance post graduation.

Campos started classical ballet when she was 3 and continued into college. She then changed to a theater major. She began to sing when she was a kid because it was fun. In high school she sang in musicals, but she really began to study the technical aspects of singing in college.

"I've worked really hard on it. It still gives me sweaty palms, especially in a company of such gifted singers who make it look effortless," Campos says.

Laughland was in a classical choir in the fifth grade; then in the ninth grade she received classical training from a private teacher. She did musicals in school, but says musical theater wasn't her strongest singing at that time. She played more classical characters in high school, and then started transitioning into some different roles. After college, she discovered her new place in musical theater. "I had to really find my voice. I've gone through a range of singing activities: classical, choir and then breaking out and finding my own," Laughland says.

Their schedules are grueling. Not only is "Chicago" a physically demanding production, but they are both in other shows and rehearsals.

Laughland describes it as a "marathon, not a sprint, when it comes to dancing. It opens, continues and closes with dancing."

Campos says that "learning the steps is just the first step." They have to figure out the story they're telling with steps and add their characters' emotions and then marry that with the songs. She describes the songs as operatic in that the songs very much drive and tell the story. "It moves really fast, like a bat outta hell."

One of Laughland's favorite songs is one that she doesn't get to sing, "Cell Block Tango." "It's the bad part of being Roxie."

Campos is returning to the Barter stage after a four-year absence. She took time off to have a baby and then worked in the costume shop. She is thrilled to return in her favorite musical.

"My soul gets set on fire when those first notes of the overture start, and the doors open, and I get to walk downstage all by myself towards the audience and greet them like I haven't gotten to do in four years. That makes my blood pump and makes me thrilled and terrified all at once. I'm so excited to be back," Campos says.

Audiences can share in their excitement beginning Sept. 29.

>>Derek Smith creates the world for "Chicago's' actors

Topics: Theatre

The cast of "Chicago" rehearses. Sarah Laughland (right) and Ashley Campos (left) are in the forefront. (photo by Billie Wheeler)