A lone horn bleats out the gritty, jazzy opening notes to “All That Jazz,” the opening and recurring theme of the hit musical “Chicago.” The Malibu High School Orchestra captured the bluesy number, setting the tone for the ambitious production of the musical about 1920s Cook County murderesses. Set in Jazz-age Chicago, the show—based on true stories from the roaring twenties—tells a cynical tale of women who murdered their husbands, their relentless desire for fame, the corrupt justice system and the fickle press and fans.

Thursday’s opening night at MHS was a sell-out. 

Malibu Mayor Karen Farrer said of the talented kid performers, “They are amazing. 

“I knew this would be a good show, but it’s exceeding all my expectations,” Farrer continued. “I want to congratulate Jodi Plaia and all the students in the theater department and all of the musical performers for giving it their all.” The mayor said she enjoyed opening night so much that she would return the next night for another performance. 

“There’s huge talent here,” she said. “This is a great production. I’m so happy for the kids. It’s been such a hard year. This is just what everybody needs.”

Orchestra member Janet Ann Purtell, a senior, said instrumentalists had more than two dozen songs to learn to prep for the 90-minute production. 

“We’ve been working on it for a few months—since the first semester,” Purtell said. “I personally don’t have a lot of parts, as a piccolo and flute player, but I know a lot of people who have worked really, really hard. There are 30 songs and an hour-and-a-half of music to play.”  

The band has been practicing nine to 12 hours a week on the score. This was Putell’s first MHS production and she enjoyed it. 

“It’s a lot of fun because it’s jazz music,” she said. “The music is upbeat and fun. Live music adds a lot to the show.” The 17-year-old musician is ready to go to college to study aeronautical engineering. She said the flute and piccolo are just a side hobby for her.

“Chicago” is the 44th production at MHS directed by Jodi Plaia, the theater arts director who’s been at the school for 18 years. Plaia explained that the sophisticated musical was adapted for high schoolers by the publishing company. 

“Some of the content that was extremely explicit was removed,” she said. “That was taken care of before I got it.” 

Plaia started casting and rehearsals at the beginning of the school year in September.  She rehearsed the cast of 18 three hours a day in preparing for the show filled with complicated dancing and singing routines. Nine students served on crew.

Even though the drama depicted in “Chicago” takes place nearly 100 years ago, Plaia found similarities in today’s culture.

“It’s a timely show with what we face in social media,” the director said. “Celebrity—how everybody has a moment of being famous. This show addresses that. 

“That’s what all these characters wanted—that moment of fame and how fleeting that is and how none of it’s real,” Plaia continued. “It took a while to get the kids on the same page because of the social media we are faced with, the cell phones and vaping—all of those things that students are using to numb out. It’s infiltrated everywhere. Finally, with months of practice, we’ve finally got to break through some of that and I felt I got my theater kids all back.” 

Plaia also said last year’s fire still is affecting the students, alongside other concerns including toxic PCBs found in the schools a decade ago that are still being remediated.

“We’re not fully recovered from that yet,” Plaia said. “We’re not still recovered from the PCBs. Construction we deal with every day. Then you add the fire. I think it’s affecting all of us.”

Senior Layne Jacobson played a featured role. He has been performing at MHS for three years and intends to become a theater major in college. 

“It was so much fun to be up there with all my other actors,” the 18-year-old said. 

With one of the show-stopping numbers of the evening, Jacobson admitted, “It’s kind of exhilarating when you’re standing there and they’re waiting for you. I’m so glad to be a part of it.”

The 366 attendees seemed glad to have bought a ticket Thursday night. After the curtain call, cast members encouraged the audience to support the Shark Fund that provides financial support for the arts programs to continue at MHS.

Mayor Farrer commented, “I encourage everyone in Malibu to support Malibu High and come to these productions. We’re far away from most theatrical venues. Take advantage of this. It’s great and the kids love having a full house.”

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