Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2003
It doesn’t really matter what I say in this review because the Theater Barn’s production of Chicago will sell out (if it hasn’t already) anyway. That is because, as Artistic Director Bert Bernardi remarked in his curtain speech, America has Chicago fever. Cleverly timed to open the same week that the Academy-award winning film was released on video and DVD, this production is bullet-proof. And that is not a bad thing because this production is darned good.
The Theater Barn is a compact and utilitarian space, and set designer Abe Phelps has wisely opened up the entire stage are for this show. A second story catwalk, accessed by a movable staircase, runs along the back wall of the stage and around the sides, providing a perch for the live four-piece band. Everything is painted a dull matte black or dark brown, except for a brilliant rectangle of crimson on the stage floor. This show is about the performers, and Abe Phelps has made sure there is very little to get in the way of their vigorous antics and gyrations.
Chicago is the down and dirty story of two jazz-age murderesses – Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart – and their desperate attempts to maintain the flash-in-the-pan celebrity their crimes bring them. Maurine Dallas Watkins, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, based her 1926 hit play Chicago on actual murder trials she had covered. In 1942 the play was made into a film called “Roxie Hart” starring Ginger Rogers. Watkins refused many offers to turn the show into a musical during her lifetime, but after her death in 1969 director/choreographer Bob Fosse and his dancer/actress wife Gwen Verdon successfully negotiated the rights with Watkins’ estate.
At around the same time, Fosse started working with Broadway composer/lyricist team John Kander and Fred Ebb on the film version of their hit musical Cabaret. That film was released in 1972 and was an enormous hit. Between the Broadway opening of Cabaret in 1966 (with which Fosse was not involved) and the release of the film version, Kander and Ebb had three shows open in New York, all of which had disappointing runs of less than a year. Obviously Bob Fosse was their magic charm, and the three men teamed up on the stage musical Chicago which opened on Broadway in 1975 with Verdon and Chita Rivera as Roxie and Velma.
But Chicago was obviously intended to be a clone of Cabaret – a dark tale of sex and murder set in the same sleazy nightclub-type setting in around the same period of time – and in that regard it was a disappointment. Chicago failed to reach the mega-hit big bucks heights it had aimed for, and was considered something of a failure – until 1996 when the still-running Broadway revival opened and Chicago's star started to rise.
Fosse and Ebb wrote the book for the show, and they subtitled it “A Musical Vaudeville.” The story is told linearly, but each number is “introduced” as a separate “act” on the bill. This device is not only reminiscent of the vaudeville placards which announced each act, but the Brechtian device of titling scenes and songs in a show – another throwback to Cabaret and the dark, German theatre of the 1920’s. Productions of Chicago tend to look a lot like productions of Cabaret too – lots of scantily clad women with heavily lined eyes demonstrating their flexibility in fascinating ways.
The Theater Barn production is no exception. In fact, they have assembled a very attractive and gymnastically talented ensemble of young men and women, and choreographer Jennifer Werner has successfully developed a Fosse-like feel to the dance numbers.
Deborah Bowman in a Catherine Zeta-Jones wig tackles the part of Velma. She comes on strong in the first act, but she and director John Simpkins allow her character to devolve to far into desperation in the second half of the show. Still, Bowman looks and sounds just great. She cavorts alluringly while being wheeled rapidly around the stage on that precarious staircase by the stud-muffin chorus boys in the fast moving opening number All That Jazz and you know you are in for it.
Casey Connolly is a tad too kewpie doll cute with her big eyes and fluffy blonde hair. The lovely eyes are her own, but the wig could have been more 1920’s and less Little Orphan Annie. But she too sings and dances her heart out in various stages of undress to good effect.
I loved Katherine Pecevich in Hollywood Pinafore and I loved her again this time around as the Matron of Murderess Row, aka Mama. This gal is hot stuff and she knows it!
As Amos Hart Jarret Mallon gets to sing Mister Cellophane, one of the best character songs ever written in my opinion. Amos is one of the few “real people” in this vaudeville show, and Mallon does a nice job of playing a regular Joe in a world gone mad.
Stephen J. Bolte is not quite up to the role of razzle-dazzle lawyer Billy Flynn, and I am not quite sure why. I have seen Bolte in roles like this in the past and he has always knocked my socks off. Here’s hoping I just saw him on an off night (maybe he was running a fever or his cat had just died?) and that by the time you get there he will be back up to speed.
The big star of this production, however, are Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costumes. They are FABULOUS and there are tons of them! On Abe Phelps’ bare black set the colors really pop and everyone looks just great. If I ever win a major award (highly unlikely) I want Johansmeyer to design my gown.
Chicago runs through August 31 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. There is an abundance of sex and violence in this one, so don't bring children under 13. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003