REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Chicago, that indestructible love sonnet to vaudeville and delectably decadent cynicism, is currently playing at the Fred Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks, and for the opening night crowd, it was an evening of outlandish humor, rousing razzle-dazzle, and of course, all that jazz.
Theater League’s productions of late have cut back on costs by utilizing spare sets and skeletal backdrops, which have often resulted in pale versions of what should be opulent classics. In selecting the 1996 revival of Chicago, which was presented in association with Broadway Across America, Theater League was able to work that frugality to their advantage; as a result, there was no need for sets at all – the performers and the energy they exuded were all that was needed.
In the 1996 revival, the band is center stage. The scintillating fourteen-piece orchestra, led by Robert Billig, was mounted on a large set of bleachers that took up most of the stage space, with openings for cast members to parade down stage and also make surreptitious exits, the last of which at the finale, when merry murderesses Roxie and Velma, disappear via an elevator, right in the middle of the band.
The revival is also noteworthy for its chiaroscuro monochromatic costumes and lighting. All the performers are dressed in black; the only splash of color are the bouquets of red flowers presented to Roxie and Velma at the end of Act II. Even a large American flag, hanging from the rafters during the trial sequence, was a drab gray, white, and black. Ken Billington’s powerful and effective lighting design casts shadows and highlights from every quarter, most effectively in “Tap Dance,” in which a trial-bound Roxie tries to persuade her sad sack husband to pay for a high-priced lawyer. Meanwhile, three tap dancers are off to the side, bathed in shadowy light, wearing bowlers and smoking limp cigarettes. It was just one of many amazingly evocative moments in the show.
Chicago‘s well-known story concerns the transitory nature of celebrity, and how a fickle public is manipulated by the press to consume and then spit out sensationalist stories at a moment’s notice. Chicago is staged as a Roaring 20s vaudeville show, with music appropriate to the period – mostly ragtime-derived. Convicted murderess Velma Kelly, the city’s current tabloid favorite, is upstaged by a newcomer, fresh-faced, red-headed Roxie Hart, who has killed her lover in cold blood. She then embraces the media attention thrust upon her, looking forward to her star turn in a cynically staged high profile trial that will secure her fame. Roxie’s defender is shameless lawyer Billy Flynn, who brazenly admits he is in it just for the money, but knows how to influence a jury into acquittal for his clients.
Composers John Kander and Fred Ebb designed the show’s main characters to match those of real celebrities of the 1920s. Velma Kelly is modeled after Prohibition saloon keeper Texas Guinan; Roxie Hart is based on torch singer Helen Morgan, while Billy Flynn is “Is Everybody Happy” clarinetist/band leader Ted Lewis and Mama Morton is Sophie Tucker, vaudeville’s “Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” Despite this, each of the performers playing these four key roles injects a new freshness and nuance into their respective characters, filling them out and enhancing their personalities.
Velma is played by the fabulous Terra C. MacLeod, who has been playing the role in various productions for the past eleven years. (See our interview with MacLeod in Thursday’s VC On Stage blog.) The black comedy in Chicago can be played dark or for laughs, and in this case, it’s the latter that is the focus. MacLeod has a bawdy, sexy presence that brings to mind Tallulah Bankhead, the husky-voiced actress of the thirties known for her ribald flamboyance. Her hair cropped short, MacLeod is all legs and an elastic dancer; in her showpieces she resembles a sleek, animated statue. She’s at her best in her testimony to the jury in Roxie’s trial (“When Velma Takes the Stand”).
As the challenger to Velma’s fame, Dylis Croman is stunning as Roxie. Her opening number, “Funny Honey,” is sung while languidly hanging, fifteen feet up, from one of two tall swinging ladders that are on either wing of the stage. Her solo, “Roxie,” whose introduction is accompanied by an endless riff from the band’s string bass, is a masterpiece.
Billy Flynn is played by Brent Barrett, who combines the glibness of a game show host with the expansiveness of a circus ringmaster. Barrett is most brilliant in one of his two featured numbers, “Razzle Dazzle,” the cynical song-and-dance in which Billy fools and fractures the jury with “the old flim flam flummox.” As Roxie’s schlemiel of a husband, Jacob Keith Watson is superb; a shambling Fatty Arbuckle, a gullible shmo of the first order whose low-key ragtime-solo “Mr. Cellophane,” is a joy to watch.
Veteran performer Roz Ryan is Mama Morton, the cellblock matron who is as mercenary as Flynn in extorting money from incarcerated felons to reach out to the outside world for help. She struts her stuff with moxie in yet another high point of the show, the Bessie Smith-inspired “When You’re Good to Mama.”
And then there’s the choreography. The original choreographic work was designed by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse, whose signature motifs include shoulder rolls, finger snaps, black bowler hats, twisting, sinuous dance movements, and lots of flesh. Every movement made by the chorus is done with open hands, creating an almost kaleidoscopic effect. In Theater League’s production, David Bushman re-created Reinking’s original choreography, executed by the masterful ensemble players, who, when they are not on stage, lounge on stools in the onstage wings.
Especially delightful is Robert Billig’s magnificent orchestra. Theater League has skimped on musicians in recent years, but the sumptuous 14-piece band, including two pianos, tuba, banjo, and accordion is superb in presenting the music exactly as it was intended. (The accordion, played by keyboardist Nissa Kahle, is especially splendid in Roxie and Velma’s duet, “Nowadays”). Billig himself becomes a player in the show – delightfully responding to cast members when they saunter up the stairs of the band stand and address him. He even has a line of his own, when he introduces Velma and Roxie in the penultimate number, “Hot Honey Rag.”
Theater League’s Chicago is a triumph. The only negative thing that can be said about this production is in regard to the brevity of its stay. It leaves Sunday after six performances. For showtimes for Saturday and Sunday performances, see the VC On Stage Calendar. And by all means, you owe it to yourself to see this rapturous and funny production. It will razzle-dazzle you.