Story: The Roaring Twenties was a decade of debauchery, when illicit booze flowed in clandestine speakeasies while guys and gals treated themselves to loud and lusty good times despite the reign of Prohibition. Chicago was a city ruled by gangsters such as Al Capone and filled with two-bit players, such as Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, searching for the big time. The former was incarcerated in the Cook County jail for killing her unfaithful husband and his lover, her own sister, while Mrs. Hart went to jail for plugging her boyfriend, Fred Casely.
At the suggestion of prison moll Matron “Mama” Morton, the two enlist the aid of infamous attorney Billy Flynn, whose slick dealings guarantee acquittal for his clients and a tidy profit for Billy. Easily conning the press, including crusading journalist Mary Sunshine, Velma and Roxie begin to believe they’re going to become vaudeville stars as soon as they’re exonerated. Just to make sure, Roxie informs the public that she’s pregnant, a surprise to everyone including her invisible husband Amos. With their trials becoming a circus sideshow, what will be the verdict for the duplicitous dames?
Highlights: Incredibly, Chicago has been performed just once at The Muny, when the just-closed Broadway show traveled en masse to St. Louis in 1977 for a week at the outdoor theater. Judged too risqué by Muny standards, Chicago hasn’t appeared on the summer schedule again until The Muny’s new executive producer, Mike Isaacson, put it on the 2012 agenda.
Chicago boasts a superior score by Missouri native and now Muny Hall of Fame member John Kander, sizzling lyrics by his late partner Fred Ebb and a wry and ribald book by Ebb and the late Bob Fosse. The latter provided the dazzling choreography as well as directed the original production, which ran for more than 900 performances. That healthy number, though, pales in comparison to the staggering total of more than 6,200 performances for the revival that opened in 1996 and is still going strong.
Other Info: The Muny’s production is dizzying and delightful on several levels. For starters, director Denis Jones has The Muny orchestra moved out of its customary pit and placed instead on the upper level of a bi-level set stylishly designed as a speakeasy by scenic designer Steve Gilliam. Throughout the production, members of the ensemble cast mingle amidst the musicians, accentuating the syncopation on stage. There’s also an impressive backdrop spelling out the title in red with patterns of gunsmoke splattered across the sign. Seth Jackson’s lighting bathes the performance in vivid colors that complement the sultry wardrobes for the women and slick duds for the guys designed by Andrea Lauer, while Charlie Alterman’s polished musical direction is acknowledged with The Muny’s fancy new LED screen.
That screen seems rather intrusive for much of the show, although it serves well to highlight the vaudevillian effects of Kander’s music, most notably on the clever ventriloquist bit We Both Reached for the Gun, choreographed by Jones and featuring Billy Flynn pulling the ‘strings’ on Roxie as he deftly mouths her words for the press while she flails away, arms and legs all akimbo.
Jones has put together a talented and smart ensemble that makes judicious use of the wide-ranging and generous score. Justin Guarini is fabulous as Flynn on the aforementioned number, and in general captures Billy’s dapper persona in suave fashion. The production is introduced in sassy, scintillating style by Natascia Diaz as Velma, who warbles the sultry opening number All That Jazz in alluring and entrancing detail.
Patti Murin nails Roxie’s coy sexiness with the tune Funny Honey, while Jackie Hoffman wryly handles the comic elements of Mama’s theme song, When You’re Good to Mama in the first act and then pairs with Diaz for the delightfully droll second-act winner, Class, which epitomizes the spirit of this self-aware show.
St. Louisan Dean Christopher is every bit as polished and professional as his on-stage cohorts as Roxie’s deadly drab husband, Amos, most amusingly exemplified on the sadly sweet number, Mister Cellophane. Patti Cohenhour amuses as zealous reporter Mary Sunshine, a role sometimes swathed in mystery, while Ian Blanco serves admirably in the often-eliminated part of the MC. Here, however, Blanco’s grace and comic manner provide an appropriate introduction to amusing spins on various vaudeville acts.
The dance numbers generally are big and sprawling as befits The Muny stage, although a couple of bits with just Roxie and Velma seem flat by comparison. All in all, though, Chicago remains one of the most engaging of musicals and seems right at home at The Muny despite such a long separation.
Group: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through July 1
Tickets: From free to $70; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Larry Pry/The Muny