"Chicago" is one of those musicals that has become a cultural touchstone. It was at one time the longest running musical on Broadway, was winner of numerous Tony's, and became an Oscar-winning film, so any company trying to take on this beast of a play is putting a lot on their shoulders. If there's one set of folks that could tackle the musical with skill, however, it would have to be the fine people behind Summer Stock Austin. Utilizing to great ability an incredibly skilled young cast, and a top-notch production team, Summer Stock Austin has created an energetic, vibrant, and sexy production of this Broadway classic.
I will admit that I approached parts of Chicago with a bit of trepidation. Velma Kelly being played by a woman still in college? Could be cause for concern. Of course, that actress is the much-acclaimed Madison Piner, so the moment she pranced out stage my mouth was shut up for good, or it would have been if I wasn't slacked-jaw in awe. Not only does Piner cut a fine figure as Velma Kelly, she also tackles the role with a winning combination of sexiness and cheekiness that makes her an enthralling and irresistible presence. Every moment she is on stage, it's difficult to take your eyes off her, and her dancing abilities are truly top notch. Of course, you could expect nothing less from one of Austin's best local choreographers, but here she goes above and beyond to leave the audiences enraptured. She takes on the role with spunk and moxie, playing it like a true stage veteran, and I would not be too surprised if we were to find her gracing much bigger stages than ours in the near future.
In many ways, this years Summer Stock acts as a kind of coming out party for Vincent Hooper, who play a major role not only here, but also in Summer Stock's production of “Footloose”, and here he truly shines brightest as the slick lawyer Billy Flynn. While he as puts on a much more serious face for "Footloose", here one can tell he's having the time of his life as Flynn, soft-shoeing around with the best of them, showing off his amazing stage presence. He's played roles in several productions over the years, appearing in the chorus for plays for Zach, and winning awards for his work in last year's “Passing Strange”, but here he's pushed front and center, and he takes on the role with unending charm. As he waltzes on to stage, greeting us with his golden sweet baritone, dripping charisma from every pore, he shows a polish and professionalism so rare in young performers, and shows off what a bright future he surely has before him.
Many times, you can tell how great a musical is by the members of its extended ensemble, and Summer Stock's production of "Chicago" has some heavy ammunition up its sleeves, with talent like Annamarie Kaspar and Kat Shrober sitting in the chorus, and with stellar actors like Zach Green stealing the small scenes they are in. Also doing excellent work in the outer edges is Jessica O'Brien, whose boisterous Mama Morton is handled with a slick hand, and whose voice blows the roof off the place more often than not. Also showing fine work is Kyle Coughlin, who plays the often overlooked part of Amos, but Coughlin brings such a heart and earnestness to the role that you can't help but hurt when he gets so put-upon throughout, and he carries his signature number "Mr. Cellophane" with gusto.
With dazzling lead performances, as well as a powerful extended cast, "Chicago" bursts with energy and life, doing its part to mark 2014 as one of the best year for Austin musicals, and firmly planting Summer Stock Austin's flag as one of the premiere companies in the city. The production gives us a great chance to see the future of the musical theatre in Austin, as well as bigger national stages.
Summer Stock Austin's "Chicago" is playing at the Long Center's Rollins Theatre through August 10. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit their website at summerstockaustin.org.