“Welcome. Ladies and Gentlemen, you are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery – all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts. Thank you.”
Loosely based on the real life stories of two merry murderesses in the 1920s, “Chicago” has entertained Broadway audiences for decades with its infectious songs, delightfully devilish choreography and impeccable slapstick humor. With its original production in 1975 playing at the Richard Rogers Theater, after mixed reviews, the show closed in 1977 the show was considered a financial flop with massive set pieces and elaborate costumes making operating costs difficult. In 1996, a scaled-down revival at New York City Center’s “Encores” concert series led to a transfer to the Richard Rogers again, moving to the Schubert in 1997, finally to the Ambassador Theater in 2003 where the show has played on Broadway ever since. The success of the show has been a testament of time and the 2002 film starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger has given an even bigger interest with a new generation of musical fans. “Chicago” runs at the Broward Center until Feb. 19 with tickets available here.
While the story is a bit on the thin side, what keeps “Chicago” on Broadway, aside from low operating costs, is its stunt casting of different performers primarily in the roles of Roxie, Billy Flynn and especially “Mama” Morton, which while requiring a level of comedic and vocal ability, aren’t as physically demanding as say, Velma. In the past two times I have seen the show I have seen both Jennifer Holliday and recently Jinkx Monsoon as “Mama,” however in between both runs was Pamela Anderson and Angelica Ross as Roxie at separate times. As the show itself is already a statement on stardom and infamy, it’s a brilliant way to draw audiences using built-in star names, this begs the question, how does the show fare with no celebrity casting?
Set against a black backdrop with a four tiered orchestra riser featuring a brass band, Velma Kelly played by Logan Floyd invites the audience into a world of hard liquor and wild parties with the vaudeville number “All That Jazz.” Meanwhile Roxie Hart, played by Katie Frieden is scorned by Fred Casely and Hart fires a pistol at the furniture salesman for attempting to walk out on her. Floyd’s Velma Kelly is performed with a textbook understanding of what makes Kelly both an egotistical cur and a sympathetic diva falling from grace. However, having seen the show with performers primarily wearing their natural hair as Velma, it is apparent from the wig design that the production is relying heavily on the nostalgia for the major stars such as Chita Rivera and especially Bebe Neuwirth that have made the role so iconic. Katie Frieden’s Roxie on the other hand is performed with a more meek interpretation of the character that builds to the ebullient criminal-turned-starlet in her solo feature of “Roxie.” Frieden performs Roxie with a main focus on the storytelling through dance ethos of the Fosse show and fantastic comedic chops.
As Roxie falls into the Cook County Jail, she meets a cast of femme fatales who were thrown into the slammer for the murder of a spouse in the instantly recognizable “Cell Block Tango” that sets up the tone of the show with six comedic monologues and minimalist choreography. However, the scene is truly stolen by Christina Wells as Matron “Mama” Morton. Brassy and boisterous, Wells’ command of the role is unparalleled and deeply understanding of “Mama’s” larger than life personality. As the swarthy, opportunistic lawyer, Billy Flynn, Jeff Brooks’ charisma is near-worthy of an actual courtroom case with his smooth baritone vocals. Roxie’s dope of a husband Amos Hart is performed by Brian Kalinowski with the absolute pitiful charm of a puppy dog in a burlap sack.
New York City Center’s Encores Series has been notable for producing scaled-down concert versions of classic shows that have not had a major Broadway run in decades, especially in the last year with the massive success of their rendition of “Into the Woods” starring Sara Barellies and Neil Patrick Harris. While “Chicago” had not been revived in nearly two decades, its story about crime as a vehicle for stardom may have been extremely pertinent with the OJ Simpson trial. Today in a world of Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes, criminal celebrities are arguably at their peak, with their rumblings in the true crime circuit being our new vaudeville acts.
With the deceptively simple jazz band riser set by John Lee Beatty, ladders, chairs, various feathers and lighting rigs create the idea of a jail cell, courtroom and dream sequence boudoirs. Clad in all black, the outfits of disgraced costume designer William Ivey Long create elegant silhouettes from the sultry cocktail dress of Velma, to the semi-innocent bell sleeves of Roxie’s outfit, a bevy of body-hugging catsuits and a sea of bowler hats create a 1920s vibe. While jail stripes, police uniforms and even the white sequin dresses of the film are not present, the versatility of the materials are on full display in creating each character. The minimalist approach to the designs of both set and costume see a jury literally played by a single ensemble member switching hats and coats, as well as, a riser being a slide, a lift and hidden wing space for cast members to pop out of.
What truly makes the show so memorable is the score with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Famous for their Tony-winning work on “Cabaret” and “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” the musical theater duo weaves a score with instantly memorable hooks, impeccable energy and develop characters woven into book so effortlessly. In this revival, original choreographer Bob Fosse’s version of Kander & Ebb’s book is parsed down to its most essential: a utilitarian book with flashy yet quiet storytelling through movement. Even at the darkest moment of the show, the use of a ballet is utilized brilliantly. As Fosse’s protégé, Ann Reinking shines as choreographer creating effortless looking chorus lines, razor precise duo moments and high kicking solos guaranteed to leave the audience, and no doubt its leads, breathless.
“Chicago” is a wild, jazz age party loaded with dazzling choreography and comedic spectacle. Truly, the show is best experienced with almost zero expectations. While the songs are a gateway drug to a boozy world of debauchery, bringing them to the stage elevates “Chicago” with impeccably precise performance. The razzle dazzle of “Chicago” runs at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts runs now until Feb. 19 with tickets available here.