When the curtain rises for “Chicago”, now playing in the Palace Theater at PlayhouseSquare you are in for a bit of a shock. The fourteen piece orchestra is seated on a huge riser configuration that literally takes up most of the stage area leaving scant room downstage (the area closest to the audience) for the cast to perform. To say the least, the stage is quite simplistic with two ladders that swing from both wings and chairs stage right and left where the cast sits when not performing. The same can be said about the costuming that is mostly black mesh with just period hats to give a 20’s “feel”. It is the facing of this minimalistic challenge, as well as the exceptional singing and dancing that makes this show a hit. As the show goes on, various members of the cast make good use of the steps and exit located in the orchestra area.
“Chicago” began life as a 1926 play written by Maurine Dallas Watkins who worked for seven months as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Maurine covered the murders and sensational trials that were the top headlines of their day. After leaving the Tribune, she went back to school and penned a “fictional” account of the murders and trials involving Belva Gaertner, a twice-divorced cabaret singer, and Beulah Sheriff Annan, a Chicago socialite as part of a class assignment. Eventually, after a number of rewrites, it became a play that ended up on Broadway for 172 performances, toured for two years (an unknown Clark Gable played Amos in the Los Angeles production) and was made into a 1927 silent movie by Cecil B. DeMille.
In the 60’s, Watkins was approached by Bob Fosse for the rights to the play to turn into a musical but was refused. It was only after her death in 1969 of lung cancer that her estate sold the rights to Richard Fryer, Gwen Verdon (Bob Fosse’s wife) and Bob Fosse. John Kander wrote the music with lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse (who also did the choreography). It opened in 1975 at the 46th Street Theatre and ran for 936 performances until 1977.
What followed was a 600 performance run in 1979 at West End then it was revived in 1996 on Broadway where it still holds the record for longest running musical revival as well as the longest running American musical in Broadway history. Currently it is the third longest running show in Broadway history with 6,700 performances. The 2002 movie directed by Rob Marshall and starred Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, and Queen Latifah won an Academy Award.
As for the plot, it is the 1920’s in Chicago, Illinois where the judicial system favors the wealthy and well known “celebrity” murderers of the day. Roxie Hart is a cabaret singer who has murdered her lover and tries to get her husband to say he did it in self defense thinking the victim was a burglar. When thick headed Amos (the husband) recognizes the victim’s name he puts two and two together and Roxie goes to jail. There she meets Velma Kelly who is front page news for a double murder of her sister (and show business partner) as well as her show business manager when she found the two of them in bed.
Roxie soon takes over Velma’s headlines, the jail house matron “Moma” Morton, and trial date by being able to out-sensationalize Velma. Enter attorney Billy Flynn (Velma’s attorney) who claims he only does what he does for “love” but it soon becomes clear that it is love of money ($5,000 in 20’s currency) that is his incentive as well as wanting to be a celebrity himself. He holds a press conference using Roxie as a puppet with him speaking the words.
Velma finds herself locked out of her former celebrity status and goes to Roxie to see if they can form a partnership and perhaps be her new Vaudeville partner when they both get free. Roxie refuses seeing herself as star material.
Roxie soon gets too full of herself and fires Flynn then begs his return when a fellow inmate is executed (the first female convicted killer in decades to have been done so). The case goes to trial after Roxie claims that she is pregnant. Flynn gives an impassioned closing remarks claiming “they both went for the gun” and Roxie is found innocent just as another more sensational crime hits the streets. Deserted by the press, Flynn, “Moma” and Amos she joins forces with Velma in forming a new Vaudeville act.
What makes this show such a delight is of course the performers. John O’Hurley is the perfect live theater performer for Billy Flynn with his split second comic timing and little asides. Bianca Marroquin as Roxie Hart sings, dances and mugs to the audience much to everyone’s delight. She is cute enough to make an eye-witness to the murder find her not guilty. Terra MacLeod as Velma Kelly brings the larger than life Broadway stage presence that absolutely wows the crowd. Ron Orbach as the hapless “poorsoul” Amos Hart makes full use of his “moment in the light” as he steals the show, Carol Woods as Matron “Mama” Morton brings a powerful voice and great acting to the stage. C. Newcomer as reporter Mary Sunshine is a wonderful voice with a big surprise at the end.
I must also mention the orchestra. “Chicago” has assembled a great crew of musicians (fourteen in all plus the conductor) who capture all the nuances of 20’s era music without faking it. As audience members were leaving I noticed a number of group hum-alongs. The lighting was perfection itself with some very tricky challenges that had to be overcome. Sound was well balanced and at perfect volume which always adds so much to the performance.
Prude Alert: It is a show about corruption, murder, adultery, jazz and sex but being a musical it is still a pretty safe show for the easily offended. The costumes are a bit scanty also you may wish to plug your ears during the musical number “Class” since some naughty words are sung.
Shooting From The Lip (My Last Words): It is what this version of the musical “Chicago” does not have that makes it great. It is a minimal set, minimal costuming and minimal effects that help you concentrate on the talent that is gracing the stage. It is the combination of a great orchestra, great singing, great dancing and great acting that will make this a really great theater experience for you…be prepared to be “razzel-dazzled”.
Tickets are on sale now for “Chicago”, January 7 -12, 2014, at PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre. Performance times are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the PlayhouseSquare Ticket Office, via phone at 216-241-6000 or online atwww.playhousesquare.org. Ticket prices range from $10.00 to $70.00. Groups of 15 or more call 216-664-6050.
CHICAGOis part of the U.S. Bank Star Performance Series. For more information on U.S. Bank visit www.usbank.com