Pete Lay as Billy Flynn in Chicago.
Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Directed by John Leffert
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2014, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Chicago has become one of the most famous modern musicals but, curiously, it is the style of the 1996 Broadway revival that has embedded itself into the popular culture firmament more than the original Bob Fosse production (1975). The revival is the longest-running musical revival and the longest-running American musical in Broadway history, and is the third longest-running show in Broadway history (behind British imports Phantom of the Opera and Cats).
And there is of course, the movie directed by Rob Marshall, which is very good (if overly frenetic in its editing), but I still prefer a good rendition of the revival staging, which was characterized by a stripped-down design that placed the orchestra onstage and moved all of the action around the bandstand, and the Ann Reinking choreography which was an homage to Fosse’s distinctive dance style. One could spend considerable time asking how a tribute to a genius arguably has become more identifiable with his name than the original, but when, in the opening number, Velma and the chorus bend their knees deeply and lean back into that posture with hands to forehead in a sublime gesture of surrender …well, the trademark is unmistakable. It captures the sexy insouciance of the master’s work in one simple move.
Director John Leffert effectively recreates that moment in this production, cannily playing to the audience’s familiarity with the material, yet he still manages to inject enough originality and energy to make it his own. Choreographer Zachary Boone copies enough of Reinking’s routines but delivers some fresh steps of his own, particularly in the second act. There were a few times that it felt as if he was holding back just when the movement should cut loose, an adjustment that seemed to follow the limitations of particular performers.
For the most part the cast acquitted itself well, with Pete Lay right on the money with the smarm as lawyer Billy Flynn. Kate Reedy began the show with a little too much emphasis on Roxie’s brass at the expense of her underdog charm, but she found the character’s center as the evening progressed, and her rendition of ‘Me and My Baby” was strong and a highlight. As Velma Kelly, Whitney Trowbridge found some welcome subtlety and gave a good voice to the more developed of the murderesses. She shared what may have been the single most fully realized number of the evening with Tamika McDonald (also strong) as Matron “Mama” Thornton when they sang perhaps the most underrated song in the score, “Class.” As Roxie’s sad-sack husband, Amos, Jason Cooper’s comic force was uncharacteristically subdued, and I feel like he may still be in search of his final take on the character. His performance of “Mr. Cellophane” was winning enough, but missing his individual stamp.
The ensemble was one of the strengths of the show, jumping in and out of characters as needed and working as an integrated, fluid unit throughout. I could not help but notice that Paul McElroy, who also served as assistant choreographer, was the sharpest and most dynamic dancer I’ve seen on a local stage lately, and there were also good moments from Maggie Patten as a sexy Hunyak, and Mera Kathryn Corlett, Tymika Prince, Jessica Adamson and Amy Wheatley joined her and Trowbridge for a memorable “Cell Block Tango.”
In a show normally characterized by lithe, athletic dancers dressed in skimpy outfits intended to show off their toned bodies, it was also nice to see some different body types on display, including plus sized women who had the skills required for musical theatre and were no less sexy than their more svelte counterparts. It may simply be that director Leffert concentrates above all on finding appropriate talent when casting, but, whatever the reason, it is to be applauded.
CenterStage always has a pretty good small orchestra, but in some shows the score can feel underserved when it calls for sweep and scale. The eight-piece band, led by Music Director Jim Dersch on keyboard, is a good fit for the tighter, dynamic jazz score of Chicago, which makes a virtue of the lesser number of musicians.
As a longtime fan of this show, I am receptive to any production that tries to get it right. The look, feel, and rhythm of this Chicago comes very close, and will certainly be counted as a sure-fire entertainment that occasionally is so much more.
September 4 – 20, 2014
CenterStage at JCC
3600 Dutchmans Lane
Louisville, KY 40205
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at the Louisville Visual Art Association during the days, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. He was once a member of the staff at Walden Theatre. His work has appeared in TheatreLouisville, Louisville Mojo and his own website, The Arts Louisville, before merging operations and becoming Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com[/box_light]