Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2007
“Ah, fame, fame, thou glittering bauble..."
- Sir James M. Barrie
When I last reviewed a production of Chicago at the Theater Barn in 2003, America had Chicago fever. The 1996 Broadway revival was running (it still is!) and the Academy Award-winning film was about to be released on DVD. But the fever has cooled. The easy availability of the excellent film and the continued success of the Broadway run (4,500 performances and counting). If this show is about nothing else it is about how fleeting fame is and how fickle the public has become. America has seen Chicago and it’s just about ready to move on to the next big thing.
And don’t forget either that Chicago was the big musical that couldn’t when it first opened on Broadway in 1975 starring Gwen Verdon as Roxie and Chita Rivera as Velma. It couldn’t win any of the eleven Tony Awards for which it was nominated and, although it managed to squeak through a two-year run, it was not counted a great success. The combination of a Kander and Ebb score, Bob Fosse choreography, and a tale of the down and dirty dying days of vaudeville peopled by slender, supple, and scantily clad dancers, was supposed to be box office gold, following on the heels of that team’s wildly successful film version of Cabaret. Actually, Chicago's biggest weakness is its similarity in tone and setting to Cabaret, which has a stronger story line and more interesting characters.
So director/choreographer Tralen Doler and the team at the Cohoes Music Hall have their work cut out for them. Can they make us care about those merry jazz-age murderesses – Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart – one more time? Can they come up with dance moves as exciting and memorable as Fosse’s? Are Jessica Costa and Jennifer Elise Davis strong enough to eclipse our memories of the outstanding film performances of Rene Zelwiger and Catherine Zeta-Jones?
The answer is yes. Doler’s direction is top-notch his choreography is breathtaking. Costa and Davis are beautiful and talented, and they are just the icing on a yummy cake of a cast. A glance at the program proves that C-R Productions is continuing to build the strong musical and technical teams necessary to maintain the kind of high-caliber production values that have come to be the hallmark of their shows at Cohoes over the past two years.
Costa proved her star power in the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie last season, and she does it again here in a completely different character performing a very different style of song and dance. With her own curly tresses bleached platinum blonde and piled high, her Roxie is a cheap slut with no morals or scruples worth mentioning (there’s a sentence Costa can clip and send to her mother!) She wants what she wants when she wants it, but she’s really not smart enough or interesting enough to get it.
Davis is the complete opposite of Costa physically, a fact that works against both women during the few times they have to sing and dance side by side. Costa is petite and curvy while Davis is tall and leggy. Individually it is easy to admire them each as a beautiful woman, together you tend to focus on their differences rather than their attributes.
I found loved Davis as a performer, but found her look a tad too wholesome for Velma. I don’t think every actress playing the role needs to have a short black bobbed wig slapped on her head, but something different could have been done to with her hair and make-up to make her look a little rougher and more shop worn. But from the opening number when she leads the gyrating chorus boys and girls through All That Jazz she is a forceful presence on the stage. She’s got an awful lot of leg, and she knows how to use them.
Channel 6 news anchor Jerry Gretzinger is a suitably oily Billy Flynn. I confess to being a Channel 10 aficionado (sorry, but I trust no one but Steve Caporizzo for my weather!) and wasn’t aware of Gretzinger’s “day job” until I read my program, but as soon as he walked on stage I thought, “Oh good, they’ve got a guy who looks like a game show host” (news anchor, game show host, same difference) which is very much my idea of what Billy Flynn should look it – sort of overly slick with large, well-defined features.
Gwendolyn Jones just about knocked my socks off as Matron “Mama.” I will speak later about the joys of hearing real singers in an acoustic theatre, but Jones is of the Ethel Merman School of Great Belters and needs no microphone to project her mighty voice over orchestra and chorus, through the brick walls of the Music Hall and clear over to Cohoes Falls as near as I could tell. What a set of pipes! And that’s not al she’s got a great set of, as you will plainly see.
And speaking of pipes, I was not fooled as to J. London’s true gender for a moment, but I was immediately impressed with his dramatic vocal range. No surprise to read in the program about his outstanding opera credentials.
Paul Kelly was an endearing Sad Sack as Amos Hart. Mister Cellophane is one of my favorite numbers in Chicago and he sang it with almost frozen agony, tilting slowly from side to side with his big, white-gloved hands spread wide.
It was fun to watch C-R Productions Managing Director Tony Rivera get shot and fall down the stairs in the first scene as Roxie’s unfortunate lover Fred Casely. Fine dancer that he is I am sure he is also an accomplished professional stair-faller-downer and he popped up none the worse for the wear afterward.
Chicago is a dance show, and so the set by Jen Price Fick wisely leaves lots of floor-space clear while also providing plenty of interesting levels, angles, and surprising doorways for Doler to play with.
Costume Designer Jennfer Raskoph has given everybody exactly one outfit for the entire show, and they are all black. The women’s costumes are remarkably skimpy, which is to be expected in a production of Chicago, and Doler has assembled a drop dead gorgeous bunch of chorines, including a former Rockette! Raskoph has probably bought a lifetime supply of Hollywood Fashion Tape because every stays demurely in place despite Doler’s extremely vigorous choreography. (In the Cell Block Tango each woman is physically tied by the wrist to a straight-backed wooden chair with which she dances throughout the number. I am not entirely sure all those moves are legal in Massachusetts, but I guess they are in New York!)
Cohoes is an acoustic theatre. The only thing that makes me happier than typing those words is going there and hearing real singers accompanied by an actual small orchestra, under the expert leadership of Musical Director Michael McAssey, of individual musicians playing a variety of instruments. Oh, I am sure there is an electronic keyboard in there somewhere, but there are also real brass and reed instruments and a percussionist. This is what American musical theatre is SUPPOSED to sound like – not all amplified and synthesized and pre-recorded. Yes, it is difficult to sing out during and after vigorous dancing, and that is why it takes trained professionals to do it. I appreciate all the talent, energy, and hard work must take this cast to present “Chicago” successfully without microphones.
I now have one rant and one note of praise.
Seated directly behind me were some very enthusiastic young men. I think they were friends or relations of a cast member, but in any case they were very intent on voicing their support for everything that happened on stage, so after every number they let out a loud set of “Woo!”s. Now there were many things in this show that were “Woo!” worthy and I applaud their support of their friend(s) in the cast, but such expressions of rapture can definitely become over-used and hence become meaningless as well as downright annoying to those seated nearby. I personally have been known to let loose with a “Woo!” or a “Yay!” or even “Bravo/Brava!” but ONLY when the occasion warranted. Being selective in your expressions of appreciation also makes them more meaningful to the performers – they know when they have or haven’t earned your “Woo!”s, so save them for the right time and they will be greatly appreciated.
And now a note of praise for the Cohoes EMTs, a dedicated nurse in the audience, and everyone at C-R Productions. Towards the end of the first act a woman seated near me had a medical emergency. I first became aware of this when I saw a fellow audience member get up out of her seat, walk over to the stricken woman and say, “I’m a nurse. Can I help?” God bless nurses! I had to keep an eye on the stage (theatre critics are absolutely useless in medical crises) but roaming flashlight beams told me that the ushers had come to help and shed light on the situation too. Soon the elevator doors opened and a pair of EMTs arrived. At this point C-R Productions Artistic Director Jim Charles stepped in front of the stage and announced that there would be a brief pause in the performance due to a health crisis. Costa and Davis, who were on stage at the time, immediately stopped what they were doing and exited silently. My companion turned to me and said, “I wonder what has happened?” Everything had been handled so professionally and quietly that she had no idea that the emergency situation was taking place right behind us! Charles appeared on the scene, along with more EMTs and a gurney, but happily the woman was able to walk to the elevator on her own, with an EMT at each elbow.
Costa and Davis reappeared on stage and picked up smoothly and professionally where they had left off, to great applause.
In these days of heightened security everywhere, it’s nice to know that at the Cohoes Music Hall emergency plans are in place and can be implemented so effectively.
Chicago, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through September 30 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances Friday & Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. With the emergency interruption it was hard to gauge the run-time of the show, but I put a fair guess-timate at 2 and a half hours with one intermission. This is a show about "Murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery..." so it is not for the faint of heart or for children under 12. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007