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Chicago by Charles Eichler

Chicago at Pheasant Run Theatre

Pheasant Run Theatre in St. Charles, Illinois, is perhaps one of the only remaining dinner theatres in the Chicagoland area. The opportunity to see a Broadway show and dine in the same stage/restaurant environment seems to be a passing memory, but Pheasant Run, a resort and spa, has managed to survive as a dinner theatre, first hosting the typical summer stock type of production with a name star in the lead. Presently it is a home for downsized Broadway musicals where patrons can eat at their table and still enjoy a "name" show such as Cabaret or Evita (not my choice for a Sunday afternoon).

Current plans are to turn the dinner theatre environment into a more comfortable theatre-style seating facility. The current production of Chicago suggests the difficulties of producing a show under such circumstances.

Chicago, the spectacular hit, debuted on Broadway in 1975 with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera with choreography by Bob Fosse. The current "concert version" of the show featuring just the players and the songs, without the settings and production elements, has been a universal hit and is still playing in New York and London. It is an unusual treat to have the original full-length musical Chicago produced at Pheasant Run since the original script contains many local references ("Boozing in Cicero"..." , one of the chorines mentions), as well as references to many Chicagoland landmarks. This Pheasant Run production strives for the glitz and glamor of the original Broadway production but falls short in its total efforts.

Director Jeff Jones has made a valiant effort to capture the cynicism and naughtiness suggested in the script, as well as the overall "showbiz spark" projected in the song and dances. Chicago tells the story of Roxie Hart, a 1920s chorus girl who murders her adulterous boyfriend and then manages to avoid prison with the help of her razzle-dazzle attorney, Billy Flynn. The story is a virtual pastiche of song and dance numbers that suggest a tale of "murder, greed, and corruption." In the end, Roxie and her prison friend Velma Kelly, another dangerous chorus girl, unite in an enthusiastic routine of dance extravaganza that ignites the audience into a well-deserved round of applause at the musical's conclusion.

Within the confines of the small theatre at Pheasant Run, this show sadly limps along during act one. The small cast tries to convey the spirit of the show but are hampered by unimaginative set pieces and clumsy orchestration. As we meet the cast of characters, there is a sameness in the youth of the cast and a dull repetition of the same people playing multiple roles. This is one of the drawbacks of dinner theatre; one never knows who will turn up next in a different role. A simple mustache or a change in costume will never disguise the fact that we have seen the same player before in another scene playing a different role.

Act two picks up the pace and rhythm needed for a show like this, and the leading players take charge. Carrie McNulty as Velma Kelly, the brazen prisoner who challenges Roxie for fame and fortune, is a standout. She is a Chita Rivera look-a-like, but within her own domain. Her legs are beautiful, her acting is strong enough for the character without overplaying, and her charisma charms the audience. "When Velma Takes the Stand" is an outstanding showpiece. You can tell that the rest of the cast take their cues from her presence.

As Roxie Hart, Carolyn Kent (who just stepped into the role one day before this performance I saw), starts off slowly without much vocal presence, but gradually grows into the role, and by the time the "We Both Reached for the Gun" number occurred, the audience has fallen in love with her.

A special mention must be made for Robbie Nothstine's portrayal of Amos Hart. Here is a thankless role that could be played for stereotyped laughs, but Mr. Nothstine's performance, especially during his solo number "Mister Cellophane," is both poignant and genuine. His diminutive movements, his facial expressions and the staging of the number are highlights of this show.

As for the 'Fosse magic,' the cast tries too hard in its movements and posturing to suggest Fosse's natural and spontaneous style. Choreographer Brenda Didier has given them the right direction, but their movements are too forced. Only McNulty takes the stage in a whirl and really looks like she is enjoying it. The "Razzle, Dazzle" number really does capture the essence of the musical. In this number, the costuming, lighting and the "Fosse touch" are really working.

Overall, the costuming is routine and lighting and sound hit and miss their targets. I still commend Pheasant Run for producing this show in its entirety. The cast is full of enthusiasm and energy, the audience seems to like this type of entertainment ... and the food ain't bad!

Chicago plays at the Pheasant Run Theatre through July 28th. Pheasant Run Resort and Spa is located at 4051 Main Street in historical St. Charles, Illinois 60174. For further information, contact 630-584-6342 or www.pheasantrun.com.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- Charles



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