I can't remember a Muny show that ever looked as polished and fearsome on opening night as this one, directed and choreographed by Denis Jones. Maybe it's partly the material, which is bracing as bathtub gin, or the unusually cool weather (which will be dramatically hotter again by closing night, July 1st). But Patti Murin (as Roxie) and Natascia Diaz (as Velma) are masters of all they survey as the jazz slayers of Kander & Ebb's story of criminal celebrity. And they turn the page with swagger and wit, as the Muny begins a new chapter under executive producer Mike Isaacson, who shared Tony Awards for his prior engagement with Fox Associates.
Yes, there were little gasps of astonishment over the phrase "son of a bitch" on opening night, at the traditionally family-friendly venue, here in the Midwest. But so many Americans have seen the 2002 movie that the notion of hard-nosed criminal celebrity, or "killing to live forever," is now as familiar as all the vampires in movies and TV put together.
And, while Chicago has no vampires, there's no shortage of swooning, high-kicking vamps on the stage this week. We get into the "Cell Block Tango" with the inmates of Murderess' Row, after our introduction to the show's two anti-heroines. And with that, everything just seems to fall deliciously into place. There's a wicked air of remorselessness as the characters reach out to grab their share of the glory, and a wonderfully spooky physical theme in the dance, as the chorus bobbles along like marionettes: their bones pounded to dust by the roar of the Twenties.
Jackie Hoffman is outstanding as the prison matron, "Mama" Mortonlooking like Lotte Lenya, at first glance, in From Russia With Love, but a laconic delight every single time she comes back for a song or a joke. And Justin Guarini, as the lawyer who never loses, keeps the mood brash and playful as Billy Flynn, in spite of the darker themes. Dean Christopher, as Roxie's hapless husband, makes his big song ("Mr. Cellophane") the heartbreaking delight it always ought to be, and Patti Cohenour finds the straight-faced humor behind her Mary Sunshine, the sob-sister of Chicago radio. Even Sam Lips, as Roxie's murder victim, provides great comic relief in the courtroom scene, when the shooting is re-enacted.
Act two is, admittedly, a little talky. But the principles are so strong, and the chorus so precise and vivid, with the help of dance captain Barry Busby, that we slide over those boulders of dialog like white-water rafting.
There are a few other things worth mentioning, concerning this best-loved St. Louis venue: the rate of new sales of season tickets is up about 30% over last year; and the Culver pavilion immediately north of the theater entrance is now open to the general public for the first time. Reserved seating is at 6:30, 6:45, and 7:00 for a buffet-style dinner. And some menu items pay tribute to the show of the week.
Chicago continues through July 1, 2012, at the Municipal Opera in Forest Park, in the east-central area of the park. Aladdin follows from July 5 to the 13th, Dreamgirls with Jennifer Holliday July 16-22, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat July 23-29, Pirates! (or, Gilbert & Sullivan Plunder'd) July 30 - August 5, and The King and I August 6 - 12. For show information and tickets visit www.muny.org. For reservations to the buffet dinner shifts, call (314) 361-1900, ext. 330, Mon-Fri, 10-4, or Saturday 10-1. Since this is new to the general public, please note: seating is by reservation only, and reservations for dinner must be made 24 hours in advance, with a major credit card. Because of "excessive" cancellations and no-shows in the past, there is now a penalty charged to your credit card for cancellations received less than 12 hours before dinner time. And there is no early seating before your scheduled time. But, even with those rules, it really is a very nice spread in a very pleasant setting, if you can manage it before the show, which begins at 8:15.