Regional Reviews: Wisconsin, SE
The story is set in late-1920s Chicago, where tabloid columnists like Mary Sunshine (G. A. James) could whip up public passions (and sell papers) by writing about women accused of heinous crimes.
Another key figure in the story is lawyer Billy Flynn (Jeff Brooks), who will defend such women for a flat fee of $5000–cash. He relents somewhat when Roxie's husband Amos (Brian Kalinowski) can't raise the dough, because his wife is getting such great publicity. Flynn is the slimeball you love to hate–handsome, direct, and smooth.
One highlight of the show ("All I Care About") echoes Busby Berkeley, as chorus girls seem to drown Billy Flynn with ostrich feathers. This dance number could also be seen as an homage to the city of Chicago's superstar dancer of the period, Sally Rand, who invented the scandalous fan dance (and then performed it at the World's Fair). There are other acute moments, as when Roxie shows her headlines to the bandleader and the band vamps while he takes his time reading them in the extended first-act number "Roxie."
So, Velma and Roxie compete furiously for the attentions of Billy, Mary Sunshine, and the public, while concocting one version or another of an innocence defense. Suffice it to say that playing for sympathy by claiming you're pregnant can lead to unexpected dramatic twists and turns, right up to the final curtain.
Another figure for the girls to reckon with is Matron "Mama" Thornton (Christina Wells), who has a hand out for cash for favors like making phone calls to Flynn. She explains her philosophy with icy precision in "When You're Good to Mama."
Perhaps as a subtle footnote to the terpsichorean narrative, the number "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag" (with original choreography by Fosse himself), with the reunited Roxie and Velma on a vaudeville stage, provides a lexicon of dance moves any flapper would recognize.
A highlight of any production of Chicago is the Roxie's husband song, as he squeezes every nickel for her defense only to continue to be treated like dirt. "Cellophane" has to be up there with everyone's favorite number, a tribute to the invisible Everyman who desperately wants to be loved–heck, even just seen.
Dance values in any musical come down to the lowest common denominator. The non-Equity cast dances to the highest standard–synchronicity, variety, and precision are the watchwords of this production. For example, when Roxie is rehearsing her testimony with Billy ("We Both Reached for the Gun"), she alternates split-second dumbness, innocence and sluttiness. The number posits the trope that Billy is a puppeteer and Roxie his puppet–that flashes its underwear at random moments.
Underwear is the theme of the costumes (William Ivey Long). Between see-through nylon for the women and body shirts or skin for the men, the costumes tease the audience with what they show or don't. This show, poised before the disaster of 1929, involves the audience as voyeurs of amusing sleaze. Too much bad booze during Prohibition and too much money to spend before the 1929 Crash takes it away is a recipe for a life spent singing and dancing in the gutter.
This touring production is based on the presentation at New York City Center Encores!, meaning it started out as a glorified staged reading. There isn't much room for scenery when the top half (or more) of the stage is devoted to the band. The scenic design by John Lee Beatty treats the downstage half as a postage stamp on which to put the dance sequences. The lighting design by Ken Billington emphasizes the murkiness of the story, sometimes to excess (it takes a while into the first act to determine whether Billy Flynn indeed has a beard or is showing the effects of shadowy lighting). The band get into their roles as participants in the orgy, from the first gorgeous trumpet intro to the end, and the actors sometimes mingle with the band. One time a chorine slides down the banister afforded by the side of the "bandbox."
Speaking of glorious trumpets, the music is full and lusty (music director: Cameron Blake Kinnear). Most musicals treat book, music, and lyrics separately and work hard to fuse them. The book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, the music by John Kander, and the lyrics by Fred Ebb combine seamlessly with the choreography (Fosse, Ann Reinking, Gary Chryst) to tell the story, a rare melding of minds. It is to director Walter Bobbie's credit that the blending of flavors continues in the current version.
All in all, though, it is a remarkable fusion of all theatrical elements, told with elan and precision.
Chicago runs through March 26, 2023, at Overture Hall, Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison WI. For tickets and information, please call 608-258-4141, or visit overture.org. For more information on the tour, visit chicagoontour.com.
Also featuring Ed Gotthelf, Robert Garris, Jasmine Janae, Jess Diforte, Liz Lester, Evy Vaughan, Sammy Tuchman, Tal Kedem, Tony Carrubba, Lincoln Belford, Asher van Meter, James Vessell.