Hollins’ “Chicago” Roanoke Heavy and Simply Spectacular

Anna Holland (left) and Emma Sala are Roxie and Velma in “Chicago.”

Ernie Zulia loves to tell this story:

Nine years ago, when the Hollins University Theatre department was mounting its first production of the hit Broadway musical “Chicago,” Roanoke actor Ed Sala took his young daughter, Emma, to see it. She was smitten, vowing to play the lead in the play one day.

She’s there now. And she’s simply dynamite, born to play the role of Velma, which she does with full-throated enthusiasm, athleticism and a kind of domination she must have imagined from the beginning. Emma is joined by a contingent of Roanokers in director Ernie Zulia’s re-boot of what is becoming a classic that had the full-house audience on its feet screaming last night.

The Roanokers include:

  • Anna Holland, the Hollins junior (Emma is a senior) who is a Roanoke theater veteran, is the daughter of Miriam Frazier, a principal at Off the Rails theatrical group. Anna, whom I’ve watched grow up in the theater, plays the trashy, flame-haired beauty Roxie Hart and simply nails the part. Ernie talked about Anna’s work ethic and professionalism and it shows on stage. She and Emma have been good friends for quite a while and their on-stage chemistry is undeniable. It’s fun watching them grow into parts.
  • Kendall Payne of Pulaski, whose Roanoke link is that he’s the nephew of Roanoke musician William Penn, is a convincing sleezy lawyer Billy Flynn. He is a professional actor, teacher and founder of Adaire Theatre in the New River Valley.
  • Stephen Glassbrenner is another Roanoke theater vet who plays the hapless Amos Hart (Roxie’s jilted husband) to perfection, nearly stealing the show with the heart-tugging “Mister Cellophane.”
  • Taylor Cobb, son of politician and minister Joe Cobb (he’s running for Roanoke City Council and must be considered an actor, given his professions), plays the nasty suitor whom Roxie kills as the play opens. Small part, big response.
  • The late John Sailer of Roanoke (husband of actor/teacher Rachel Sailer), who died three years ago, designed the set for “Chicago” at Hollins nine years ago and his design is brought back in order to honor the man who is certainly the best Roanoke scene and lighting designer in history.

Beyond the local interest, however, there is a spectacular production that is augmented by Caitlin McLeod’s costuming and a tight little band that presents Chicago in the 1920s superbly. Costuming, of course, is crucial to this work and Ms. McLeod’s work is spot-on. She is the founder of the Chicago-based costuming business Craftiga. Susanna Young, who is become something of a star backstage at Hollins, is the choreographer.

The show features the work of 50 Hollins students in every discipline, including a large group who are on stage.

Emma and Anna are, of course, the loud beating heart of this production of “Chicago,” playing their roles with such authority that they become Roxie and Velma before your very eyes: sexy, trashy, brash, loud, vulgar, ambitious and self-assured.

“Chicago” is simply a joy to watch and it features Ernie Zulia at his best (when is he otherwise?). This one is a must-see. It runs through this weekend and next weekend, April 18-21. Sunday’s show is a 2 p.m. matinee. The other shows are at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $10 (you’ll feel like you’re stealing) and can be bought here.