Also see David's review of Lost in Yonkers
"Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treacheryall those things we hold near and dear to our hearts." With these words, Chicago the stage play begins. And, with those words and what follows, the audience members in Cleveland's Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, learned how much they could enjoy a stage production that doesn't have a hero or heroine.
The cast had a spectacular opening night. Everything went welllighting worked without a flicker, sound amplified without a screech, and the costumes were ... Well, the costumes for Chicago are scant. The 2002 movie Chicago has not damaged the interest in the stage version. People shouldn't go to the stage production of Chicago and expect to see a show that is almost the movie. Note that the stage production came first and the production that's playing in Cleveland is similar to the original Broadway production. The movie was based on the script and staging from the Broadway version. One is not better than the otherthey are different. One takes advantage of doing what can be done with a movie. The other is a stunning stage production that provides the excitement of the living theater.
Chicago has an interesting history. The story took place in 1924 in Chicago when Beulah Annan (Roxie) was accused of killing the "intruder" Harry Kalstedt, while Belva Gaertner (Velma) was charged with murdering her husband. Both murders became front-page stores in the Chicago Tribune. The supposed pregnancy used to speed up the trial, the sleek lawyer who helped define the media frenzy, and the acquittal of both women actually happened in real life. Maurine Watkins wrote the story of the murder-row darlings in a comedy titled Chicago. This version of the story of Roxie and Velma opened on Broadway in 1926. The movie of that stage production was released in 1928. A second film version, Roxie Hart, starred Ginger Rogers in 1942.
In 1975, a new version of Chicago reached Broadway with writing by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse (book), John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics). These creative people wrote a script that doesn't have one sympathetic character. (Well, maybe Amos Hart has sympathetic qualities.) Velma and Roxie, the leading ladies, have murdered. Matron "Mama" Morton, the supervisor of the women's prison, takes bribes. And, Billy Flynn, the lawyer who represents many of the women prisoners, represents what can happen when a lawyer focuses on billable hours and not the defense of the suspect.
The story is set in Chicago, Illinois, during the Great Depression, a time when many looked for get-rich-quick schemes. Fred Casely (Brent Heuser) has promised Roxie Hart (Bianca Marroquin) a chance for success: an audition for a chance to perform in vaudeville. The promise of vaudeville for women like Roxie and Velma was a chance to perform, have a bit of fame and, perhaps, meet a sugar daddy.
When Roxie realizes Fred is manipulating her in order to sleep with her, she kills him and asks her husband Amos (Tom Riis Farrell) to take the blame. Soon, Roxie is in competition with Velma Kelly (Brenda Braxton), who also shot her husband, for the attention of Billy Flynn (Tom Wopat) for an early trial and suggestions for getting out of jail. Through melodramatic plot twists and excellent songs that move the plot forward, Roxie and Velma finally arrive at the curtain call where they sing "Nowadays," a song from their vaudeville act.
In addition to having a special, involving plot, Chicago should be remembered for the choreography. Bob Fosse choreographed the original Broadway production. Ann Reinking choreographed this touring production in the style of Bob Fosse. Consequently, Chicago remains a museum for the Bob Fosse style.
When Chicago was revived in 1996, the world had grown darker and the American people had become more cynical. Chicago was a hit, winning Tony Awards and critic approval. Chicago has continued on Broadway since 1996 and several touring companies have crossed this country.
I've seen Chicago both on Broadway and in London's West End. This production has the same set and technical qualities as those productions. I saw this company in several years ago at The University of Akron. They have evolved since then. Wopat has matured into the role; he's no long a good-ole-boy, but now is a sophisticated attorney who knows how to manipulate the system and keep an eye on his bankbook. Carol Woods' Matron "Mama" Morton has grown as a character. When she sings "When You're Good to Mama," she has added some jazz riffs that make the song new and exciting.
This is a sold, entertaining production of Chicago. The production is playing to capacity audiences in Cleveland.
After a two-week run at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square, which ends January 24, Chicago moves to The Clemens Center, Elmira, New York, January 26-29. Next, the company goes to the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, January 30-31. Ticket Information: 216-241-6000.
- David Ritchey