|Chicago the Musical|
Review by Catey Sullivan
For 21 years, Chicago has been running on Broadway in a revival that’s stripped down to almost concert-level minimalism. The numerous tours of of the show that have come through the show’s namesake city have been replicas of the Broadway incarnation: Costumes are scanty mesh-leotard-fishnet combos, the set is essentially comprised of a few ladders and a row of chairs.
Minus lavish production values, the roaring ‘20s tale of two murderesses has been primarily defined by Bob Fosse’s slinky, sexy choreography, a sensual masterpiece of leggy storytelling. For two decades, the musical of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery has been a machine that basically prints money, proving the show’s opening statement that we do indeed hold all the aforementioned nefarious things near and dear to our hearts .
After over a decade of pursuing the elusive rights to the show, Drury Lane Artistic Director William Osetek finally got the green light to put his own stamp on John Kander’s and Fred Ebb’s classic, based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Osetek has done away with the concert-style staging and gussied the whole thing up with period costumes and sets. And while there’s a clear nod to Fosse’s indelible style of dance and the body-con costume design of Broadway, Drury Lane’s Chicago is a bold new take on a venerable warhorse.
The fact that this ain’t your parents Chicago is evident immediately. Suspended above the stage, a grizzled reporter is ensconced behind his typewriter in a newspaper office filled with battered filing cabinets. Chomping on a cigar at a desk that surely hides a flask (or three) of hooch amid the paper shuffles, our master of ceremonies (Michael Accardo) is a rumpled reporter whose cynicism knows no bounds. As the show’s narrator, he presents a gimlet-eyed commentary on the American appetite for scandal.
The story unspools in in a world of noir, where broads hide silver snub-nosed pistols in their pocketbooks, men wear pork pie hats and the brightest lights come not from the sun but from flashbulbs popping at crime scenes.
Cook County jailbird Velma Kelly (Aléna Watters) fits into this world like a thigh-high stocking on a shapely calf. She’s got legs for months and a face that would make a bishop kick in a stain-glass window. Charged with killing her sister and her husband (after catching them doing the spread-eagle in a Cicero flophouse), Velma’s the face of Chicago’s murder of the century. Once she’s acquitted, she can write her own vaudeville ticket.
Velma’s star is soon rudely dimmed, however, by the arrival of the next trial of the century. Upstaging Velma is Roxie Hart (Kelly Felthous), the red-headed mistress of a gangster who turned up shot to death post-coitus. Roxie craves stardom as badly as Velma. Their battle for the limelight (and, incidentally, their lives) comprises the plot of Chicago.
Far more than a standard noir, Chicago is first and foremost an acid-strong satire on celebrity worship, the American public’s insatiable appetite for prurient scandal. It is also a corrosive commentary on our collective willingness to overlook the worst elements of human nature, so long as they’ve been blinded by sequins. And if the occasional non-English speaking immigrant gets unjustly executed? Well, that’s the cost of keeping America great.
Roxie and Velma want to be stars as much (if not more) than they want to avoid death row. Their attorney Billy Flynn (Guy Lockhart) defends them by distracting the jurors with a circus. A smoking gun is no match for Flynn’s razzle-dazzle.
Osetek’s cast is comprised of fabulous dancers who deliver the satire with a mesmerizing, sinewy grace. Jane Lanier’s choreography is both her own, while still embedded with Fosse’s signature moves.
Watters brings a fierce, leggy beauty to Chicago’s intensely demanding dance moves, delivering balletic precision and exquisite fluidity to the stage. She’s well-matched against Felthous, who radiates joy and boundless energy throughout. Velma opens the show with the bravura “All That Jazz,” while Roxie gets an extended spotlight in the eponymous “Roxie.” Both numbers demand full voice and marathon-levels of dance. Not only do Felthous and Watters make their respective numbers look easy, they also add depth to the piece by exploring their characters’ inner workings.
Lockard’s Billy Flynn is fine as all get-out and as slick as oil on glass. He’s also impossibly handsome, and has a bewitching smile that could disarm a battalion of hanging judges. His “All I Care About (Is Love)” is a captivating ode to duplicitous materialism.
E. Faye Butler is another scene stealer. As the mother hen to all the jailhouse chickies, she’s got sass and belt to spare. Her sardonic, soaring delivery of “When You’re Good to Mama” easily fills the Drury Lane’s ample space with a force that seems to set the seats vibrating. And when Mama and Velma duet on “Class,” their lament for good breeding and politesse is dosed through with delectable irony.
Finally, there’s Justin Brill’s sadsack, easily ignored Amos Hart. “Mr. Cellophane” is equal parts pathos and comedy, and despite the number’s comically sad refrain, you will indeed remember Amos.
Set designer Kevin Depinet has framed the stage with towering stacks of newspapers, underlining the het up tabloid frenzy that propels the show. His old school newspaper office above the stage all but reeks of deadline sweat, stale smoke and cheap gin. Costume designer Sully Ratke has outfitted the women in cheeky ‘20s garb that references the lingerie looks of the Broadway production while also capturing the look of the era’s silhouettes.
Osetek’s use of reporters as both the story’s narrators and its principal dance corps make the fickle whims of the media – and its willingness to sensationalize anything and everything – stand out in stark relief. Roxie and Velma are media darlings – until the next killer ingénue arrives on the scene. The newsmen both skewer and reflect the voracious American appetite for new scandal. While Chicago is set in the 1920s, that appetite is evident in today’s 24-hour news cycle.
Murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery will always sell.
Chicago continues through June 18th at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace (map), with performances Wednesdays 1:30pm, Thursdays 1:30pm & 8pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 5pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm & 6pm. Tickets are $40-$60 (w/ dinner theater package options), and are available by phone (630-745-3000) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at DruryLaneTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)