Photo © Broadway.com
Music & lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Book by Fred Ebb
Original choreography by Anne Reinking; updated by David Bushman
Originally directed by Walter Bobbie; reconceived by David Hyslop
Review by Kathi E.B. Ellis
Entire contents are copyright © 2018 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved.
Chicago is in town all week. And it’s well worth a couple of hours to watch this energetic, tight company bring an iconic musical to life. This tour of the 1996 Broadway revival is clearly inspired by the Second City Encores ‘concert’ production that preceded it. And it is equally clearly an homage to the original 1975 original production.
Unlike the 2002 movie, the stage productions are stripped down. Here, the orchestra, excellent under the baton of Robert Billig, is on stage in a tiered box that takes up much of the playing area. The story unfolds in front of this structure, allowing characters to tell their story directly to the audience. Much of the ensemble sits on chairs on each side of the stage waiting for their turn.
The presentational aspect of the production highlights the original idea that this is a series of vaudeville turns, and is especially obvious in the court room scene and the finale. Each vignette is introduced with a title by an ensemble member or conductor. With the orchestra onstage and the conductor adjacent to a major entrance, there is a lot of badinage between characters and conductor, a cheeky nod to the presentational style of the production. The characters know they’re putting on a show to get what they want.
It’s fascinating to watch how several generations of Broadway artists are represented in this tour.
For example, originally directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, this revival was originally directed by Walter Bobbie and reconceived by David Hyslop for the tour; Anne Reinking created the revival’s choreography ‘in the style of Bob Fosse’ with David Bushman recreating that vision for the tour. And everything on stage is both true to the original and fresh for the 21st century.
Lana Gordon and Dylis Croman, Velma and Roxy respectively, are the anchors of the explosive 1920’s murder stories that are Chicago. Gordon brings a world weariness and a knowledge of how to get along in the world to Velma. Her “When Velma Takes the Stand” is a tour de force not only of singing but also of movement. Croman’s journey as Roxy emphatically shows that Roxy was never the sweet ingénue that so many want her to be, and the number “Roxy” exemplifies it. Their final duet together had the first night audience roaring with approval.
Jennifer Fouché’s Mama was delicious, just salacious enough for the imagination to fill in the rest. And Fouché’s voice easily filled the Whitney. “When You’re Good to Mama” completely commanded the full house, the audience hanging on her every ornamental note.
Jeff McCarthy’s louche Billy Flynn was decidedly appealing and manipulative in equal measure. McCarthy’s ease with the singing and movement that’s needed to ground Flynn in this world was a delight. Reviving the iconic ostrich feathers (itself a throwback to Busby Berkley-era musicals) in “All I Care About” was, I suspect, a given and provides a wonderful stage image.
“Mr. Cellophane” in the hands, literally, of Amos (Paul Vogt) was, as always, a crowd-pleaser, bringing the audience well and truly into the hapless Amos’ camp. Mary Sunshine (D. Ratell) provided the necessary amount of saccharine, and a fabulous voice, for Flynn’s manipulations to work. And the revelation was speedily and neatly accomplished to a surprisingly large amount of surprise from audience members.
The whole company, numbering twenty-two, was excellent. While space precludes attributing all the cameo roles played by the ensemble, their facility and experience listed in their bios means that this production doesn’t have a weak link. A nice touch at the end is when conductor Billig announces each of the performers by name as they take a solo bow – something that allows the audience to figure out who is who in a way that is rarely possible.
Chicago plays through this weekend at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. As Broadway Series president Leslie Broecker wrote in her program notes, “It may be cold outside, but the piano’s hot inside…”
January 23 – 28, 2018
PNC Broadway in Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY, 40202
Kathi E.B. Ellis is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and a member of Lincoln Center and DirectorsLabChicago. She has attended the La MaMa Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding southern artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for South Florida theatre’s Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and part of ShoeString Productions, an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.