note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
In the past few years, I’ve seen John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical hit, “Chicago,” five times. While most productions emulated Bob Fosse’s remarkable, sexy choreography, and the slinky black lingerie costumes of the original Broadway show, they have dazzled with their own, singular strengths, making it exciting to see this musical over and over again.
In the 2008 national touring company production, Broadway star Tom Wopat was overshadowed by his female co-stars and a sleek ensemble.
At Reagle Theatre’s spectacular production last year, choreographer-director Gerry McIntyre, (who wowed Broadway audiences starring as Billy Flynn and also Ogunquit Playhouse theatergoers with his signature choreography and direction there, too) allowed cast members to incorporate their own strengths and styles.
The kindest thing I can say about the 2012 national touring company production starring former supermodel Christie Brinkley at Boston’s Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre, is thank goodness for her fabulous co-star, John O’ Hurley, and the superb ensemble, because Brinkley was a dismal disappointment.
“Chicago” was originally conceived and written as a play that debuted in 1926, penned by then-Chicago Times journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins. It was retrieved and converted into a musical by Bob Fosse and Fred Kander in 1975, and revived later in the 1990s .
Watkins had covered the trials of two beautiful young women accused of murder - Beulah Annan and cabaret singer Belva Gaertner, in April and June 1924. Both were acquitted. They are the basis of Watkins’ characters, vaudeville performer Velma Kelly, who killed her sister and boyfriend, and Roxie Hart, who’s married to colorless mechanic Amos Hart, but had an affair with fickle, married furniture salesman Fred Casely. When Fred threatened to leave Roxie, she shot him. Roxie’s goal is to see her name up in lights, as a headlining performer. She figures her fame as a murderess is her path to stardom.
Nothing was missing at North Shore Music Theatre’s in-the-round, production of “Chicago,” (Sept. 23-Oct. 5). My sole complaint is its two-week run was too brief.
Generally, “Chicago” is a fun, splashy musical that requires a large presidium stage; but from Music Director Dale Rieling and the orchestra’s first chords of the razz-ma-tazz, jazzy overture and throughout the show, the cast enveloped theatergoers, standing above them on platforms, in the aisles, talking, interacting, and making individual contact, sweeping onlookers into the action. Uniformed guards with billy clubs stood nearby and above us, asking questions and admonishing patrons who appeared to be potential “troublemakers”.
Set in the roaring 1920s, when crime, prohibition, murder and mayhem ran supreme and the fickle press chased after bigger,more scandalous news, headline-hungry murderesses awaiting trial or lingering on Death Row, gained fame and freedom, thanks to money-grabbing, egotistical, mouthpieces like Billy Flynn. Muted, musical strains beckoned our attention to the aisles and stage, as Rieling and his fabulous musicians revived the Golden Age of Jazz with panache and pizzazz. And Paula Peasley-Ninestein’s costumes restored the cloched, fringed, footloose fashions of the roaring ‘20s..
Under Director-Choreographer Nick Kenkel, the main stars added new dimensions to their roles.Bahiyah Hibah was less belligerent and egocentric as bad girl Velma Kelly, and Heather Parcells was more humorous as Roxie. Liz McCartney unleashed her powerful, fantastic voice as big, bad Cook County prison matron on the take, “Mama” Morton, especially in her solo, “When You’re Good to Mama,” and in her comedic duet with Velma, “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag”. Lauralyn McClelland evoked sympathy as innocent accused killer Hunyak the Hungarian, who’s doomed because she can’t speak English and lacks money to hire Flynn to represent her.
Also pathetic was Nick Kohn, portraying Roxie’s nebbish husband, Amos, who’s easily maneuvered, overlooked and underappreciated. His theme song, “Mr. Cellophane,” emphasizes his inability to gain respect.
Ah, yes. Billy Flynn. Sean McDermott was fabulously sleazy, especially while warbling his splashy number, “All I Care About is You,” to his female clients, while demanding his $5,000 fee. Together, he and Roxie created a sham during her trial, with their puppet-like, testimony, turning the courtroom into a circus.
Meanwhile, actor C. Simmons surprised everyone as bleeding heart reporter Mary Sunshine, proving with Billy things aren’t always what they seem.
“Chicago” simulates a variety show, introducing each character through solos numbers, then flashing backward and forward, in this tale of headline-hungry, showgirl wannabes of yesteryear, when sex, crime, violence, political pandering, shifty lawyers, and sensationalism reigned supreme. Kinda sounds like today, doesn’t it?