Monday, July 4, 2016

Theater Review: Chicago -- Ivoryton Playhouse

Stacey Harris. Photo: Anne Hudson

Murder, Tabloid Headlines and All That Jazz Provide Cool Entertainment on a Hot Summer Night
By Lauren Yarger
Gruesome murders, tabloid headlines and scandal. You could be watching the news, but this tale is set in the Windy City in the 1920s and has a terrific score to boot.

Chicago, the Kander and Ebb classic musical with original choreography by Bob Fosse that took Broadway by storm back in 1975 and is still running there in the longest running revival in history (it won the Best Revival Tony in 1996).

One reason this musical has enjoyed such popularity for so long has to do with that comment about the fact that you could be watching it on TV news today. The book (by Ebb and Fosse) is based on an earlier play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter, who had covered some sensational murder trials where the women accused became celebrities in the press. She based her play on those experiences, so a plot that otherwise might have seemed ludicrous is supported by realism.

In late 1920s Chicago, accused murderesses await their trials. Among them are:
·         Celebrity of the day, Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris), a former Vaudeville star who killed her husband and sister after finding them in bed
·         Annie (Lauren Watkins), who, upon discovering her husband was a polygamist, poisoned him
·         June (Carolina Santos Read) who served up her cheating husband with a carving knife
·         Mona (Daniela Delahuerta), who has “artistic differences” with her husband’s way of “finding himself” with other women
·         Liz (Sarah Mae Banning), who killed her husband for popping his bubble gum
·         Hunyak (Caroline Lellouche), who only speaks in her native Hungarian, and whose only English words are “not guilty!”

They soon are joined by Roxie Hart (Lynn Philistine), who shot lover Fred Casley (Jason Daniel Rath) before he could dump her. Her milquetoast husband, Amos (Ian Shain), tries to take the blame for the shooting when his wife claims she was attacked by a burglar, but changes his story when he realizes she knew the victim.

The story is covered in a media frenzy led by reporter Mary Sunshine (operatic soprano Z. Spiegel) and Velma soon finds herself out of the spotlight now focused on Roxie (unfortunately the real spotlights on stage, designed by Marcus Abbott often leave the actors in the dark). The newcomer steals her sensational trial ideas, and even Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton), the hotshot lawyer she secured with the help of a bribe paid to the prison’s matron, Mama Morton (Sheniqua Trotman, who returns to the Playhouse where she wowed as Effie in Dream Girls).
As Billy crafts Roxie’s defense painting her as a poor victim of circumstances and Amos as an unsympathetic husband, another sensational triple murder committed by Go-to-Hell Kitty (Sarah Mozelle Waxman) threatens to take attention away from Roxie and her hopes for a Vaudeville career post trial – until she comes up with an even more sensational twist to tantalize the press and get her picture back on the front page.

Another reason this musical endures through the decades is the fabulous score by Kander. Tunes like “All that Jazz,” Razzle Dazzle,” Nowadays,” “My Own Best Friend” have been a part of the Broadway song book ever since Gwen Verdon (Roxie) and Chita Rivera (Velma) introduced them in 1975. We were thrilled to hear Ann Reinking (who had been married to Fosse and won the Tony for her choreography) and Bebe Neuwirth (who also won a Tony) sing them in the revival.

Equally, we are happy to hear Philistine and Harris give them a whirl along with Fosse-like choreography (rolled shoulders, jazz hands, etc.,) by Todd Underwood, who also directs the very good performances (although Sound design by Tate R. Burmeister doesn’t allow solos against chorus to be heard well consistently). +

A couple other complaints:
·         Young Shain is miscast as Amos. Though he executes the song “Cellophane” well vocally, he is too nice looking. Amos should be sort of heavy and dumpy so we understand why the man is ignored by anyone. Shain is rather too attractive to have that problem.
·         Somehow Billy Flynn is missing that old razzle dazzle – along with some of the dialogue in this show, which sounds like it is being delivered by rote. Underwood needs to sharpen it. A scene between Mama and Velma, for example, as they reflect on the lack of “Class” people have, should elicit lots of laughs, but instead, it just gets a few chuckles. In another scene, a secret is revealed, but it goes almost unnoticed.

Some additional positives (because there are lots more of those):
A small band directed by Paul Feyer sits on a platform over the action on stage behind jail cell bars – kudos to Set Designer Martin Marchitto. Costume Designer creates sparkly, risqué costumes as well as period clothing and wigs to remind us we are in the art deco era and not in present day. “Cell Block Tango” is nicely staged and sung.

Do yourself a favor. Turn off the election coverage and head on over to Ivoryton for some really sensational headlines set to fabulous music.

Chicago runs at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton through July 24. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. $50 for adults; $45 for seniors; $22 for students and $17 for children: (860) 767-7318;  www.ivorytonplayhouse.org

Sheniqua Trotman. Photo: Anne Hudson

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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