Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Palo Alto Players

Joey McDaniel, Robbie Reign, Elizabeth Santana, and Michael Monagle
Strung sheets across the front stage become a screen for the black-and-white, silent-movie clips of 1920s Chicago's goodfellas, their dolls, and their nightclubs of spangled flappers—all accompanied by the rousing, jazzy overture of the still hidden orchestra. As a dashing MC in tux appears to whisk away the screen and welcome us to a "story of murder, greed, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery" ("all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts"), a multi-level nightclub stage opens before us, packed with animated band members and surrounded on its sides by prison bars, bordered all around with hangman's nooses and barbed wire. A slim, curvy woman in a tight, black gown slinks down the steps tempting us with her sexy "All That Jazz," kicking off in full style Palo Alto Players' 85th "Toniest-ever" season with Kander, Ebb, and Fosse's much-awarded, oft-revived Chicago. Already we in the audience realize that, while not a Broadway stage, the one before us is going to render an evening that is likely to be captivating, eye-popping, and professional in every respect.

The familiar storyline of Ebb and Fosse begins with a chorus line of husband/boyfriend murdering dames reenacting their acts of gunning down, stabbing, choking, and poisoning their philandering victims in a high-kicking, action-filled "Cell-Block Tango." A press corps eager to hose-feed a hungry pubic with its daily drowning of lurid headlines and pictures of long legs and full bosoms is currently focusing its attention on Velma Kelly. Velma plots with the bribe-rich Matron "Mama" Morton how to turn her husband-ending scandal into vaudeville success. That depends on an acquittal, of course; and her freedom appears guaranteed with a court system eager for back-pocket payoffs, a press more interested in juicy details than justice, and a defense lawyer, Billy Flynn, who lives for the flash of reporters' cameras and the cash he gets from "sex-ploiting" his clients. But Velma needs to stay in the daily forefront of the yellow-hued journalism, and there is a rub. Newly jailed Roxie Hart is ready to upend Velma's sure ticket to stardom with her own sordid, sensational sob story (one concocted with Billy's help and without an ounce of truth to be found within it).

Rivals-to-become-sisters (after many hilarious twists and turns) Velma and Roxie each command the stage as true stars from opening to close. Janelle LaSalle (Velma) and Elizabeth Santana (Roxie) shine brilliantly in voice and dance in their solos, their numbers with the chorus boys or girls, and in their duets. Each also brings a great sense of timing and twist to create comedy as she plots to insure she is noticed, even when behind bars, by the fickle press and public.

Tall, handsome Michael Monagle has a camera-ready smile and a sure-fired brashness that he brings to Billy Flynn. With eyes that shift tellingly to the next possible headline grabber while he is still glad-handling his present jailbird star, this Billy can sing with clear gusto, dance with snappy ease, and help steal an entire scene at just the right moment. With Roxie on his lap and in his control, Billy brings the house down as she becomes his flippy, floppy puppet. With a mouth barely moving, he ventriloquizes in song Roxie's little white lie to a press eagerly buying how "We Both Reached for the Gun." His earlier "A Little Bit of Good" among a bevy feather-fanning, almost naked girls and his later circus-themed "Razzle Dazzle" with an entire company of acrobats, jugglers, and contortionists surrounding him as ringmaster prove that Michael Monagle is leading man extraordinaire.

But number after number in this show surpasses the last in brassiness, hilarity, and/or sheer power of delivery. Jennifer Taylor Daniels stuns the audience as she leaves behind the trench coat and ring of keys of Matron "Mama" Morton and steps into the spotlight in shimmering black dress to belt a smoky "When You're Good to Mama" that would feel at home in any Harlem club at 2 a.m. Overly sympathetic and syrupy sweet reporter Mary Sunshine (N. Sanchez) sends the audience into titters as this drag-queen purveyor of gory gossip reaches into high-note heavens for sustained, breath-denying blasts in "A Little Bit of Good." Slowly replacing costume and donning make-up before us, Joey McDaniel transforms his dumpy, non-assuming Amos Hart (loyal-to-a-fault puppy-husband of Roxy) into an Emmett Kelly clown while rendering a wonderful "Mr. Cellophane."

Weaving in between and among these and all musical numbers of the evening is a chorus of twelve who execute with precision, dexterity, and athleticism the demands of Janie Scott's Fosse-inspired choreography. With emphasis on hands that flash wide, arms and legs that extend and flair in every possible direction, bodies in air and on floor, and forms that contort with rubbery ease, this chorus delivers its dance with aplomb.

In many ways, the biggest stars of the evening are the almost dozen musicians under the direction of Katie Coleman. Their music soars all night and literally never misses a beat as drums link scenes together and wind and brass alike recreate the sounds of both a 1920s jazz basement and the dance floor of a snazzy nightclub. Along with the aforementioned, impressive set design of Patrick Klein, the underwear-based costumes of Jeffrey Hamby that give an edge and a wink to the sex-filled satire of the evening, and the precisely right lighting decisions of Nick Kumamoto, the band ensures the high energy, talented-to-a-person cast are able to deliver a Chicago that defies its suburban production to have a big-city look and feel.

Palo Alto Players continues to present Chicago through September 27, 2015, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets and information may be found 24/7 at or by calling 650-329-0891 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Tuesdays - Thursdays and 2 - 4 p.m. on select Saturdays.

Photo: Richard Mayer

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Jose/Silicon Valley area

- Eddie Reynolds