Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of CHICAGO at Ivoryton Playhouse
Through June 24th
Live like you’ll die tomorrow, work like you don’t need the money, and dance like nobody’s watching. — Bob Fosse
There’s a damn good reason why Chicago is the title holder as the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. It’s a fabulous piece of theatre with something for everybody: great dancing and singing, exceptional acting, comedy, drama and, above all, it takes place in Chicago in the mid-1920s. The 1975 musical was based on the 1926 play of the same name. John Kander did the music, Fred Ebb the lyrics with a book by Fred Ebb and the incomparable Bob Fosse. Indeed, Bob Fosse’ fingerprints are all over the play. The play is not heavy on storyline, but tells its events through a series of vaudeville acts – and therein lies both its uniqueness and its charm
The play tracks the criminal careers of two women murderesses Velma and Roxie. Back in the 1920s, criminals were seen as celebrities. Remember Bonnie and Clyde? Women murderers were relegated to a special place in the public eye and juries were wont to find in their favor, especially in Cook County Chicago where the play takes place.
Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of Chicago captures the essence of the original show. It’s engaging, entertaining, and a pure delight. Its success resides in the music, the dancing, the staging, the acting, and the casting.
Let’s start with the casting. Both Stacey Harris and Lyn Philistine were excellent as the dancing and singing cold-hearted murderers Velma and Roxie (Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones played the characters in the film version). Christopher Sutton plays to perfection the charismatic and smarmy lawyer Billy Flynn. Sheniqua Denise Trotman brings her formidable acting and singing chops to the role of Mama Morton. Ian Greer Shain is wins over the audience as the nebbishy cuckolded husband, Amos. Yes, Amos, we do hear you! And last, but not least, rounding out the principal lalyers is Z. Spiegel who is knock-down DRAG- (emphasis on drag) out hilarious as Mary Sunshine. Z. steals every scene Mary is in.
Show business is a collaborative venture. Even one person shows depend on directors, stage managers, lighting, costume and stage designers, etc. In order for a show like Chicago to succeed, it must have a totally integrated and fluid ensemble. Such was the case at Ivoryton. My bad too many times for not acknowledging the unsung heroes of the chorus and ensemble. So props to the very talented ensemble in Ivoryton’s production who danced, sang, and doubled as all of the key cameo parts including in no special order: Jose Amor Christensen, Carolina Santos Read, Nick Raynor, Caroline Lellouche, Jason Daniel Rath, and Sarah Mae Banning.
Chicago is first and foremost a dance show. What show wouldn’t be that came out of the mind of the late, great Bob Fosse? I am always amazed at multi-hyphenate directors who ply more than one trade to any given project. For example, I am humbled when I see films like Gran Torino where Clint Eastwood directed and gave a brilliant acting performance; or films by John Avildsen of Rocky fame who both directs and does the cinematography. In the theatre world, my hat is off to directors like Ivoryton’s Todd L. Underwood who not only direct but take on the daunting task of choreography as well. Mr. Underwood handled the directing and the choreography of Chicago with great verve and aplomb. Under his direction, the staging, pacing, and blocking were flawless.
Any production of Chicago needs a great musical director. Fortunately, Ivoryton had one in veteran director and pianist Paul Feyer. Some period pieces are often difficult to stage and adapt; not a problem here, however, under Mr. Underwood’s very capable direction and with sets designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, and costumes and wigs by Elizabeth Cipollina. Special kudos must go to Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard’s decision to bring Chicago to Ivoryton.
Chicago’s longevity will continue for many years to come. Ivoryton’s production, however, is of limited duration. Consequently, in the lingo of the late 1920s, theatre goers should not be left holding the bag, but should dig up a few sawbucks and see this lollapalooza of a show!
Another first for me – Chicago. A fantastically, fiendishly, funny few hours of murder and mayhem, set primarily in the women’s cell block of Cooks County Jail in Chicago’s gloriously roaring 1920s. The original Broadway production graced the boards in 1975 and later was revived in 1996; it has seen stages everywhere from Milan to Montreal, Sydney to Singapore. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Ebb and Bob Fosse (who also choreographed the original production), the revival is the longest-running musical revival and the longest-running American musical in Broadway history (and the second longest-running of all shows in Broadway history). I’ve only seen snippets of the 2002 film starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly, but never in its entirety, so I was eager to see it on Ivoryton Playhouse’s stage, and I can definitively say I was not disappointed!
With a rich and fascinating history, Chicago the musical was based upon Chicago the play, which in turn was ripped from the headlines and the real-life experiences of Chicago Tribune reporter and playwright, Maurine Dallas Watkins, who covered the 1924 murder trials of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Watkins had attended George Pierce Baker’s playwriting workshop at Harvard but at his urging, landed a job as a reporter for the Tribune in order to learn about the “real” world. She was soon to become a prolific playwright, with Chicago as her first work, immortalizing Annan as “Roxie Hart” (whose husband Albert Annan became “Amos Hart”); Gaertner became “Velma Kelly”; and their respective lawyers, William Scott Stewart and W. W. O’Brien were melded and dubbed “Billy Flynn.”
During the freewheeling, racy twenties, there was a strange fascination in popular culture with female murderesses – and a twisted desire to not only acquit them (especially when they were attractive), but also to bestow upon them something of a celebrity status – which may not be a whole lot different than the way things are in today’s world. As most of us are familiar, there are plenty of “celebrities” who possess little-to-no talent, however they achieve a level of fame simply for being famous, not the least of their actions in many circumstances being illegal doings. Back in the twenties, Watkins wasn’t among those who fell prey to the allure of the “jazz babies” as they were called, but instead chose to write about her experiences with them in the farcical climate of the media circus and widespread public opinion.
The play opens as viciously vivacious Velma is arrested for the murders of her cheating husband and sister and whose reaction to their affair gets her and her vaudeville talents tossed into the clink. Nearly at the top of the Cook County food chain, if only for a while (and quite the suck-up to corrupt Matron “Mama” Morton), she is soon displaced by radiantly ruthless Roxie who’s offed her lover Fred Casely and then duped her dull hubby, Amos into believing Casely had it coming. The rest of the play becomes a one-upmanship (or one-upwomanship as the case may be) as Roxie learns quickly that the surefire way out of jail is to become a media hog and so she utilizes Mama’s “agenting” skills to weasel her way into Flynn’s office and to become his Page One newspaper doll. Oh, what feminine wiles can do…
With no prior performances as a benchmark, I must say that Ivoryton did a terrific job giving Chicago legs (pun intended) and bringing it to life. With a dynamic troupe of triple-threat singer-dancer-actors, wonderful direction and choreography by Todd L. Underwood, great musical direction by Paul Feyer, unique use of the stage with sets by Martin Scott Marchitto and costumes by Elizabeth Cipollina (which collectively, flawlessly depict the era); and spot-on lighting and sound by Marcus Abbott and Tate R. Burmeister, respectively, I was tapping my toes all the way back to the alluring twenties, and itching to don the sparkly red flapper dress hanging in my closet from a bygone Halloween party.
Stacey Harris is a vibrant Velma Kelly (all those “V” words really work!). She embodies the role, lending her many talents to this tough and sharp-tongued sexpot; and she sets the bar high for what is to come in the opening number “And All That Jazz.” Lyn Philistine as Roxie Hart adds the ideal touch of innocence and desperation to this conniving black widow; with the perfect blend of charm and humor, she does a bang-up job lambasting her husband in “Funny Honey.” Harris and Hart are a remarkable team and likely could worm their way out of any legal woes in which they might find themselves, on stage or off.
Christopher Sutton’s Machiavellian Billy Flynn is just the right touch of machismo smarm and he nails things early when he’s stripped down to not much more than his sock garters, and then is knock-down, drag-out hysterical in his ventriloquist act with Roxie in “We Both Reach for the Gun.” Ian Greer Shain as Amos Hart is excellent as the hapless husband, who with his on-point portrayal of banality becomes anything but the colorless sap she makes him out to be (he is incredible in “Mister Cellophane,” nearly reducing me to tears of laughter). Sheniqua Denise Trotman is the brazen and biting head of the cell block who easily can be swayed with a few compliments and a well-greased palm.
A huge shout-out also must be given to the sidesplittingly funny Z. Spiegel as Mary Sunshine – the over-the-top tabloid reporter with a soft-spot for the pathetic inmates. Spiegel captured the essence of Sunshine’s saccharine-sweet good nature while at the same time, egging on the audience for innumerable laughs. And damn can he she sing!
And what an incredible ensemble cast – kudos to them all – the men: Jose Amor Christensen and the Court Clerk; Taavon Gamble and the Judge; Danny McHugh as Sergeant Fogarty/Juror; Grant Benedict as Aaron/Harry; Nick Raynor as Martin Harrison; Jason Daniel Rath played a great rat as Fred Casely. And the women: Daniela Delahuerta as Mona; Sarah Mozelle Waxman and Go-to-Hell Kitty; Lauren Watkins as Annie; Carolina Santos Read as June/Dance Captain; Caroline Lellouche as Hunyak; and Sarah Mae Banning as Liz.
You don’t have to travel all the way to Illinois to see Chicago, because this Chicago is at Ivoryton until July 24. Run don’t walk – and use your jazz hands – Fosse would be proud!