"The whole world's gone lowbrow." That line from Matron "Mama" Morton sums up the entire play of Chicago in a nutshell.
Chicago has been through many variations in the 82 years it has been around. Much like My Fair Lady, Chicago didn't start off as a musical, but it has eclipsed the original 1926 stage and 1927 and 1942 film versions. Unlike MFL, which almost immediately eclipsed the original Pygmalion, the first run of Chicago in 1975 was a complete flop and it wasn't until 1996 that the musical version, which was done as a one-of in a series of forgotten musicals, that the play developed an audience at all. It's hard to believe it's only been a decade since the play gained a fan base, but in that short time, most people have forgotten about the original song and danceless version of the play.
In fact, like many of our best works of fiction, Chicago is sadly grounded in reality. In 1924, Chicago was racked with two high profile murder cases that the media salivated over. These two separate murders were committed by Beulah Annan and Belva Gardner. One reporter, Maurine Watkins, was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who chronicled these cases and noted how obsessed the public became with these femme fatales even though they were "nobodies" before their grisly crimes. Maurine took these real life cases she covered and exaggerated some of the events and created a dark but sadly all to close to home look at fame, the people who seek it, and the media's need to sensationalize rather than fact check. So for those of us who comment on how corrupt the media is in 2007 or how everything is now about ratings over journalism, I can only point you to the origins of this play and point out it's been this way for quite some time. We just tend to look at things with a nostalgic eye and believe that days of yore were a simpler time.
From July 10th until July 15th, The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is hosting the road version of Chicago. If you don't know the plot, then take a seat. Your main character is one Roxie Hart (played by Michelle DeJean). In a fit of passion she murders her lover Fred Casely. She goes to jail and gets caught up in the media frenzy of examining her and her gruesome crime. Roxie is more concerned with the fame and publicity she is getting rather than the possibility that she's going to be on the wrong side of a hangman's noose. At the same time, co-resident of the jail she is in, Velma Kelly (played by (Terra C. MacLeod) is awakened to the cold hard reality that her own grisly double murder is no longer front page news and her fifteen minutes of fame are up. Much like Roxie, Velma is egocentric and concerned only about the fame and potential confessionals/book tours and even a vaudeville tour that will come with her eventual acquittal. And so the entire play revolves around their attempts to stay in the spotlight and make money off their crimes rather than feel any real remorse. Chicago is a wonderful satiric look at the mind of two sociopaths and how the media treats high profile criminals as celebrities rather than what they really are.
Michelle DeJean is wonderful as Roxie. She blends both singing and acting into a believable character that is incapable of thinking about anything but her own personal wants and needs. Fame is a drug to her and she will do anything for another hit of it. Terra MacLeod is great in the singer parts of Velma Kelly, but acting wise she seems to be trying way too hard to emulate Bebe Neuwirth's version of the character from the 1997 revival of the play. Gregory Harrison is Excellent as the shyster lawyer Billy Flint. Long before we had "If the glove doesn't fit, you must not convict," we had the character of Billy playing juries' like fiddles. Of the three principal players in this version of Chicago, Mr. Harrison may be the most recognizable actor of the group as he has played a number of supporting roles on TV, in addition to be the titular character in the TV series version of Logan's Run.
Other actors that deserve praise here include Eric Leviton as Roxie's cuckolded husband Amos. Mr. Leviton is hilarious in this supporting role and from where I was sitting, displayed the best facial reactions and non-verbals of the cast. He definitely deserved his loud ovation at the end. Melba Moore who plays "Momma," has an amazing voice and she steals the show with the end of her number "When you're good to Mama." She's honestly one of the best Alto 2's I've ever heard. Although the character adds little to nothing to the play, that's more script issues than any detraction towards Ms. Moore. Finally, I do want to give kudos to Ashley Yeater and Christophe Caballero. Although both have very minor parts (Ashley plays the Hungarian Hunyak and Christophe played the Jury. Yes, one guy), they both did an amazing job with their roles.
The stage setup was quite unique. Instead of having an Orchestra Pit, the band is sequestered in the middle of the stage. Although it can be distracting at times, this also allows for some enjoyable comedic interactions between the actors and the musicians. It also prevents having any real background or set design, but I found Chicago worked best with this minimalist setting. As well, it was nice to see the musical talent get the degree of attention they did, as too often is musicals they do a lot of work and receive little credit from the audience. Here you couldn't avoid them.
Another aspect of the stage setup worth noting is that for much of the play, the sides of the stage are lined with actors and actresses sitting in their respective chairs. It's a very odd feel for a play, and I still can't decide if it added or detracted to the actual action on the stage. However, the musical version of Chicago has always been about breaking the fourth wall between the actors and audience, so it at least keeps with the origins of this version of the play.
The music, of course, was excellent. Even when the original run tanked, Chicago's had several musical numbers that became part of Broadway Americana... even if people couldn't remember what play they exactly came from. There isn't a bad musical scene in the play, with songs ranging from the very familiar "All That Jazz" and "Funny Honey," to the less well known but no less entertaining "Cell Block Tango," and "When Velma Takes the Stand." If I had to pick a bad number out of the bunch, I'd go with "A Little Bit of Good," but for the sake of withholding spoilers, I'll just say that it was obvious the person playing Mary Sunshine's voice was "straining," but that is the point of the character. Also, I should make a note that throughout the entire number of "Razzle Dazzle," I wanted to make Nikki and Paulo jokes. Note to self: never get buried alive.
The only real negative I had about the whole play was the costuming. It was basically skimpy black clothing in some weird cross of "Cabaret revival meets slutty mid 1990's goth with mid rifts thrown in for good measure." Don't get me wrong, normally I have no problem with that and the play was very sexy. I also realize the production was sticking VERY CLOSE to the revival that brought Chicago back to the dance in the first place, but I guess I'm more a stickler for the wardrobe meeting the actual time period being portrayed.
Overall, this was a great production of a popular play that was far ahead of its time when it first debuted. Sadly, the run for Chicago at the Ordway is only until July 15th (I went on opening night which was July 10th and this review is going live at noon on July 11th), so if you want to go, you should probably call the Ordway box office now. Chicago is a wonderful blend of music, gallows humor, dance, and drama. I heartily recommend seeing it.