Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Run concluded. Due to an outbreak of COVID-19 cases, The Muny canceled its final three performances of Chicago.
Highlights: The Muny closes its abbreviated 2021 season with a crackerjack whiz bang of a production of the stylish, sexy and always scintillating Chicago, under Denis Jones’ inspired, frenetic direction.
Story: Roxie Hart is nobody to anyone except her loving husband Amos until she shoots and kills her lover Fred Casely when he tries to walk out on her.
Honorable Amos thinks that claiming he’s guilty of killing the “prowler” Casely is the right thing to do until he realizes that Roxie and the furniture salesman were doing more than discussing sofa prices. Roxie is headed to jail to await her trial, but before you can say “Gee, willikers,” Roxie’s case is taken by brash, swaggering Billy Flynn, who is known as the slickest defense attorney in Chicago. For a ridiculous fee he’ll free Roxie and make her famous to boot.
That fame part doesn’t sit well with Velma Kelly, another murder suspect with a bad case of wannabe stardom. She’s already made a deal with Matron “Mama” Morton at the prison to be a star herself. Murder is bad enough, but jealousy may well rule the day when Velma clashes with the new girl on the cell block for the limelight attention.
Other Info: Chicago is in the pantheon of the musical catalogue of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, the genius duo behind Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman and others. The book for Chicago is co-written by Ebb and Bob Fosse, whose original production of Chicago with his signature, athletic choreography was a hit on Broadway from 1975-77, closing after 936 performances.
A revival of Chicago opened on Broadway in 1996 and is still running today, the longest-running musical revival and the longest-running show on Broadway other than The Phantom of the Opera. It’s played at The Muny just twice before this week, in 1977 and again in 2012.
Chicago has the heavily influential stamp of choreographer Fosse all over it, with its athletic gyrations and syncopated dance stylings which are a perfect fit for the raunchy and raucous subject matter. It all starts with a sizzle in the opening number, “All That Jazz,” and rarely slows down except for deliberate pauses on numbers such as the humorous but sad “Mr. Cellophane.”
Jones has directed some of the best Muny productions in recent years, including a triumphant version of 42nd Street in 2016. He’s at his feverish best with this version of Chicago, both in his wide-open but disciplined direction of The Muny’s ensemble cast, and with his exuberant and dizzying choreography on numbers such as “Tap Dance,” “Cell Block Tango” and “We Both Reached for the Gun.”
Ebb and Fosse intricately set the story as a scandal sheet sensation, with various numbers playing out to jazz, ragtime, tango and other musical styles, all stylishly presented by musical director Charlie Alterman and his orchestra.
The set designed by Tim Mackabee is a wondrous salute to Hollywood with its delightfully excessive touches, and it’s superbly accentuated with Shawn Duan’s video design, which makes the best use of The Muny’s video capabilities to turn this Chicago into a fast-paced, decadent metropolis.
Rob Denton’s splashy lighting, Emily Rebholz’s colorful and eye-popping costumes, Tommy Kurzman’s matching wig design and the complementary sound design provided by John Shivers and David Patridge complete the splendid technical presentation.
Jones’ cast is all aboard for this free-wheeling, fun-loving tour of the Windy City during Prohibition, with James T. Lane leading the way as a dashing, irrepressible and ever confident Billy Flynn. Sarah Bowden brings spitfire sass to Roxie, J. Harrison Ghee struts and sulks as the scheming Velma, and Emily Skinner relishes her role as mendacious Mama Morton.
Adam Heller brings to mind Tony Shalhoub in his touching performance as the cuckolded Amos Hart in looks and mannerisms. Ali Ewoldt is fun as the insincere muckraking journalist Mary Sunshine, and Joe Bigelow is at his Snidely Whiplash best as the salesman/heel and Roxie’s arrogant lover, Fred Casely. The fallen ladies joining Ghee’s Velma for the “Cell Block Tango” include Madison Johnson, Taeler Cyrus, Veronica Fiaoni, Lizz Picini and Carleigh Bettiol.
The talented cast also includes local favorite Michael James Reed in five different roles as well as Valton Jackson, Connor McRory, Victoria Byrd, Ricardo A. Zayas, Sean Ewing, Davis Wayne, Brandon L. Whitmore and Abbey Friedmann.
You’ll rarely see a more visceral and exotic show than Chicago. It’s doubtful as well that you could ever top a version of this Kander/Ebb/Fosse classic directed and choreographed better than this rip-roaring sensation of a show under Jones’ inspired tutelage. This Chicago has all the razzle-dazzle one could want or handle.