Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of The Normal Heart
Slinky J. Harrison Ghee (Kinky Boots) kicks straight up to the stars as a drawling Velma Kelly, and Sarah Bowden is deliciously two-faced as Roxie Hart in a jam-packed production that runs through June 19. James T. Lane is smooth and nuanced as Billy Flynn, their lawyer, as the two women stew on murderers' row in the midst of a good old-fashioned St. Louis heat wave. It was still 93 degrees at 10:43 p.m. as I walked back to my car, after the delightfully dark, two hour and twenty minute show. But the big new fans run constantly overhead in the audience, providing steady cooling ventilation. And in that breeze, Chicago unfurls with razzle-dazzle to spare, under the direction and choreography of Denis Jones.
In general, the dancing is outstanding, and I found myself trying to guess which young background performers would soon be on their way to Broadway. In the opening number, each flowing routine blossoms off the one before, and triggers three new groups of dancers into their own spin-offs, to carry them across the giant stage. Soon we are witnessing dozens of sharp elbows and knees, relentlessly cutting through the air in perfect formation. It's thrilling.
Later, Mr. Lane is awash in red ostrich feathers as a big circle of chorus girls surround him, lying in a circle like the June Taylor Dancers. Crazy fireworks fill the stage near the end. But Velma and Roxie's hat-and-cane finale begins on a stodgy note, with stubborn baton-like business, as if there is too much pine tar on their bats. And (on opening night) there were persistent mic problems, when an actor would utter his or her first line in a new scene.
Like 1971's Follies, Chicago (1975) tells its story through a series of often-cynical vaudeville-like routines. Chicago began development when actress Gwen Verdon asked her husband, Bob Fosse, to work up a show for her based on a 1926 Broadway straight play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, and the rights were purchased in 1969.
In the new Muny musical revival, Sarah Bowden's sense of humor is pitch-perfect as Roxie. She and Billy Flynn circumnavigate the courts (and the press) in the Windy City, after a tawdry affair and cold-blooded murder. Local actor Michael James Reed stitches the whole thing together in five roles, to include narrating the action like an elegant carnival barker. Emily Skinner seems effortlessly on-point as prison Matron "Mama" Morton. Adam Heller is lovable as Roxie's husband Amos, and Ali Ewoldt does nicely as Mary Sunshine. It's all lavish and grand, with billowing costumes by Emily Rebholz and consistently stylish big screen projections by Shawn Duan.
But I grew up never having to take the Muny Opera seriously, in the 1970s and beyond. So it's only when I go back, decades later, that I realize how vastly improved it all is. Now it's me, instead, that's tired, smug, cheap and self-satisfied. And cheap. These days, at the nation's largest outdoor theater, every detail is brand new, polished, and fretted over. And you begin to understand that all your old preconceptions must be shattered again and again, every single time you go back. Credit for that Muny miracle goes to Artistic Director Mike Isaacson, winner of multiple Tony Awards.
Chicago runs through Sunday June 19, 2022, at the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre, #1 Muny Drive, Forest Park, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.muny.org
Cast (in order of appearance):
Additional Production Staff: