Chicago, Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Emily Afton as Roxie Hart and Kellyn Uhl as Velma Kelly; photo provided
K. Kelly as Mary Sunshine and Ben Jacoby as Billy Flynn; photo provided
"There’s a little bit of good in everyone...."
Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, way back in 1975, crafted characters for their musical "Chicago" who had almost no redeeming features. These were dark characters, people who lived for the momentary pleasures, people who gave very little to others retaining everything possible for themselves. They were played by the most likeable people on Broadway: Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Jerry Ohrbach, Mary McCarty. Somehow these actors softened their playing in these roles and even though there was nothing about them to make them likeable you liked them just the same, in spite of yourself and your better instincts.
And there were those songs: "All That Jazz," "Razzle Dazzle," "Mister Cellophane," "Nowadays," to name a few. And there were the dance numbers, choreographed in his own inimitable style, by Bob Fosse. Hard to resist.
Along came a revival in 1995, still playing on Broadway, and a whole new generation of theatre-goers got to see the show and come to love it, in spite of the fact that it was still the same show with still the same unlikeable characters, played this time by Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Marcia Lewis. Then there was the fine film version with an equally fine cast and still there were the selfish, unbearable characters to deal with. Again it was loveable.
Now the show plays for two weeks at the MacHaydn Theatre in Chatham, New York, with the same old selfish folks played by another group of talented individuals: Emily Afton, Kellyn Uhl, Ben Jacoby, Yvette Monique Clark. Once again there is no one you want to cheer on, root for, get behind. The same problems exist and once again the show manages to charm its audience through the power of song and dance.
The current quartet of lead players cited above play, respectively, Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly, Billy Flynn and Mama Morton (same as the lists that precede this one). They are all wonderful in their roles. Clark’s prison matron, Mama Morton, is the most personable. She has softened Mama M a bit it seems to me, particularly in her first song in which she doesn’t push hard on the almost offensive lyrics; instead she croons the piece with a seductive gentleness rather than an inane pride which is the most often used attack on the lyrics.
Afton’s Roxie seemed less likeable than ever before, but by the end of Act Two she is almost a treasure in spite of her transition - as if by magic for no reason is presented for this - into the Vaudeville partner of her bitter enemy, Velma. Velma is played by Uhl in such a brash and insensitive way that it is almost to be taken as the director’s intention to force us to appreciate the even more rotten Roxie. It almost works. Uhl’s dancing is spectacular in this show and our vote goes to her side.
Jacoby is a slick and handsome Billy. He sings appropriately with a sneer in his voice and on his lips. He hammers his scenes until you almost want to cry out for him to stop, to be nicer to Roxie and Velma, and then you realize who they are and you stop yourself. Jacoby plays with an unexpected power in this part.
Equally powerful in a negative way is Kevin Gardner as Amos Hart, Roxie’s inept husband. As intended, he almost disappears, but Gardner makes him into a more stolid figure than anticipated. As gossip columnist/reporter Mary Sunshine, there is an exceptional performance by K. Kelly. Kelly brings a strong whiff of other-worldliness to the role and sings like a diva. It’s a winner of a showcase.
Perfect costumes by Jimm Halliday set off the characters wonderfully. The augmented orchestra with Rick Hambright on Woodwinds, Susan Radcliff on Trumpet and Dan Cordell on Trombone/Tuba make a world of difference to the sound of the show. In fact, I cannot imagine how much less entrancing this particular show would be with just the usual piano, drums and squeaky synthesizer normally offered in this theater.
Director John Saunders has done a beautiful job of staging this show in the round. He uses the turntable unit to great effect and his stage pictures generally provide a fair shot at the principles all of the time. Saunders places his principals in optimum positions for important scenes and, with choreographer Bryan R. Knowlton, creates a fluid sense of time and space in and out of "limbo" and other places. It is a beautiful job for this theater and much to the credit of Saunders who has played in this arena and knows its quirks, faults and benefits. His use of a full-fledged circus motif for "Razzle Dazzle" was a brilliant touch.
A great score in a show about people whose worth is equal to mud with talented people creating what they can from that combination under the watchful eye of a talented director makes this a very good evening of musical theater. Even the happy ending has no joy in it, and so the curtain call almost makes up for the philosophical wrongs of "Chicago." But leave your sense of right and wrong at home. It won’t make you a happy person by 10:30.
Chicago plays through July 18 at the MacHayden Theatre, located on Rte. 203, just north of Chatham, NY. For information and tickets contact the box office at 518-392-9292 or go on line at www.MacHaydnTheatre.org.