Feb. 27 2013 12:00 AM

Lansing's newest theater ensemble moves up to the main stage with 'Chicago'


It’s the theater company equivalent to an extravagant coming out party, a la MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16.” After eight years of producing youth-oriented Broadway revue shows, the Blue Light Players, a nonprofit musical theater company, is entering the world of adult theater with an ambitious production of “Chicago.” In an interesting twist, a musical about the birth of the celebrity criminal will provide financial support to the families of fallen and injured law enforcement officers.

Although the company may be relatively unknown to Lansing area theatergoers, the Blue Light Players has been around since 2005. The group was founded by husband-and-wife team Dan Southwell and Helen Hart, who met while performing in Mudge’s Follies, a vaudevillian performance troupe that holds annual revues in Grand Ledge. Both make time around their day jobs — Hart is an IT project manager, Southwell is a law enforcement officer — to pursue performing arts.

Hart was teaching her children to sing and dance in her basement dance studio when she realized that there more children who wanted to perform than the existing local children’s theaters could accommodate. Hart and Southwell’s philosophy: “Don’t complain about something if you’re not willing to fix it.”

Their fix became the Blue Light Players. In addition to giving children performance opportunities, they felt strongly that the company had to give back to the community, so they made it their mission to raise money to support the families of fallen and injured police officers — ergo that colorful part of their name. Since its inception, the company has raised and distributed over $25,000.

Jamie Spencer experienced the Blue Light’s commitment to community service firsthand. Her husband, Michigan State Police Trooper Drew Spencer, suffered a traumatic brain injury when a passing motorist struck him during a traffic stop in September 2011. During his four-month recovery, Jamie Spencer received a letter and an “extremely generous donation” from the group. Spencer is back on duty.

“I was extremely touched that complete strangers would do so much for our family,” said Jamie Spencer, who attended Blue Light’s “Broadway Revue” last March with her husband. “These people work extremely hard and are very dedicated to supporting law enforcement families.”

Blue Light started with nine elementary school-aged cast members and has grown to 37 members this year. High school and college students expressed interest in joining, so eventually the cast was split into several troupes, and includes performers from kindergarten to college age. Divas need not apply, as casting is non-competitive. Any student who is willing to commit to the rigorous rehearsal schedule gets a part.

“We are always focused on the community service aspect —you’re not doing this to become a star,” Hart said. “You’re doing this to raise as much money as possible and give back to the community. That helps tone down some of the egos.”

Hart and Southwell bring a balance of professionalism and passion to the company. Hart has a quiet intensity as she describes the process of casting and producing shows and how she teaches professional work ethics from day one.

“Everything we do involves learning about theater,” said Hart, “Even our youngest children learn proper etiquette and terminology.”

Southwell has been in law enforcement for 34 years. He said his experience working on the Capital Area Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which provides debriefing and diffusion services to emergency personnel, guided his choice of where the money should go. Blue Light makes direct contributions to families of fallen and injured law enforcement personnel, presenting the gifts in person and honoring the officers and their families at subsequent performances.

“I’ve seen the traumatic (impact) of line of duty deaths and I’ve attended the funerals,” Southwell said. “That was where the passion came from.” Southwell’s voice softens just a bit as he shares a story of presenting a Blue Light Players T-shirt to the son of a Detroit police officer who was killed in the line of duty, along with an invitation to be an honorary member of the troupe.

Hart was intent on making their grown-up debut a strong statement about the quality of Blue Light’s production capabilities. She knew “Chicago” was the right choice.

“It weds the vaudeville concept of what we do with the Broadway revue into the full-fledged musical theater,” said Hart. “It showcases what we can do as an organization.”

“Chicago” is a satire of the cult of personality phenomenon created by the media and consumed by the public. It revolves around Prohibition-era showgirls/murderesses Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, who are as corrupt as the system into which they are thrown. The women are manipulated by lawyer Billy Flynn and prison matron “Mama” Morton. Throughout the story they burn through songs that have become ingrained in popular culture, such as “All that Jazz,” “We Both Reached for the Gun” and “Cell Block Tango.” The lesson: fame is fickle, because the public always hungers for the next sensational scandal.

Samuel French, the license-granting entity for “Chicago,” approves only 5 percent of applications for the show. In addition, it only allows three productions in a year in Michigan. Hart said she was set on performing the popular musical, no matter what. Her contacts at Samuel French suggested that she should have a second choice while she waited three months to get approval. In fact, Hart said they would have delayed their high-profile debut just to get "Chicago," but luck was on her side — she was granted one of those three precious licenses, allowing Blue Light to conclude its season with a little razzle dazzle.

The cast of 20, whose ages range from 16 to 57, and were chosen through Blue Light’s first competitive audition process. Cast members travel from as far as Flint, Howell and Marshall to be in this show.

“As we’ve said to our cast, there is no in-between on this show —we’re either going to be highly successful, or we’re going to be an extreme failure,” Hart said. “It will happen together. No one person can save this show, no one person can ruin this show.”

Succeed or fail, Blue Light Players will continue to perform a full musical annually. They are already planning next year’s show, although Hart is not ready to make any announcements. Whatever the choice, it’s unlikely to have the built-in irony of having the “Cell Block Tango” supporting the needs of law enforcement families.

“Chicago: the Musical”
Albert A. White Performing Arts Theater
Hannah Community Center
819 Abbot Road
East Lansing
March 1 -2
7 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Saturday
(517) 484-1100