Though the first GOP presidential primary debate screened on TVs nationwide last Thursday evening, I took on a different form of drama at Thalian Hall. Both revolved around celebrity, criminality and American politics, but only one rose above the ashes to truly incite a feel-good boast of laughter and amazement (no, it wasn’t Trump’s comb over). Opera House Theatre Company continues celebrating its 30-year season with the opening of the Bob Fosse spectacular “Chicago.” Quite frankly, there’s not a better word to describe it other than … spectacular!
Starring a cast of heavy hitters showcasing intricate footwork, delightful harmony, grandiose acting, and over-the-top zing, “Chicago” is the longest-running American musical revival on Broadway. It’s understandable to see why. It’s got murder and mayhem, glitz and glam, and tongue-in-cheek humor, all backed by the Roaring Twenties, and set to pounding, rolling and rollicking music.
The musical is based on the straight play written by reporter and playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins. A Chicago Tribune writer, Watkins was assigned to cover the trials of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner in the ‘20s. The women were prosecuted for killing their lovers. The musical captures the essence of their stories with the characters Velma Kelly (Anne Hawthorne) and Roxie Hart (Kendra Goehring-Garrett). Velma Kelly’s a vaudeville star who’s used to seeing her name in lights and in the papers. Roxie Hart’s a wanna-be, just dying to reach celebrity status, even if it means acting and cheating her way to the top—though, ironically, she’s where most folks would consider the bottom of the barrel: in jail. Both ladies are awaiting their trials for murder in the County Cook Jail, under the reign of Mama Morton (a sassy, Southern warden played by Michelle Johnston Braxton). And both are using the dapper yet sleazy attorney-to-the-stars, Billy Flynn (Jeff Phillips), who basically can get any woman acquitted and have her signing autographs to the general public upon her release back into freedom.
“Chicago” is one of my favorite musicals, mainly because the dancing just invigorates every muscle in my body each time I see it. I want to roll my shoulders and legs, shuffle sideways, thrust my hips, give as many jazz hands as possible, and jump on chairs to slink through routines with the same compelling energy that Fosse invented (this is not a pretty sight at home as it is on Thalian’s stage, may I add). Performers who have the luxury of learning any Fosse-style dance can count themselves privileged in their craft. The Opera House Theatre production shows us this tenfold.
Hawthorne as Velma Kelly is a stunning portrayal of a mature woman who’s learned a few lessons in life. She has style, class and owns every floor she slithers across. Hawthorne grew up in WIlmington and worked with Opera House before moving to New York and landing a part in “Fosse” on Broadway. It’s obvious her skills as a dancer were honed with professionals who worked with the American iconoclast. Every number she enacts comes to her as if it’s second nature. She makes it look effortless to be sexy. And her voice is all-consuming, especially in her “act of desperation,” “I Can’t Do It Alone,” easily her best solo of the show. And, yes, it’s better than “All That Jazz,” which by no means is easy to nail. Not an ounce of breath was out of place between her melodies and moves.
The only person to match Hawthorne’s professionalism step-by-step is Goehring-Garrett as Roxie Hart. Goehring-Garrett really portrays the perfect nemesis to Velma Kelly: younger, bolder, more willing to outplay and outnumber, without a hint of regret, only a preposterous amount of invincibility. Goehring-Garrett manages to bring a slight immaturity to Roxie that’s brilliantly conniving without being overly malevolent. When she sings “Roxie,” the audience melts in her hand, and roots for her rise to stardom. Yet, her “Tap Dance” number with Jason Aycock and Lanny Scott set off perma-grins. In fact, I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the entire show—always an indicator of good theatre in my opinion.
The Merry Murderesses—Heather Setzler, Samantha Mifsud, Stephanie Tucker, Brooklyne Williamson, and Caitlin Becka—are eye candy every time they hit the stage in their lacy black-and-white getups (every costume change tops out the previous one, too, thanks to Selina Harvey’s careful attention to detail). And their “Cell Block Tango” does everything it should: seduce and stir in haunting yet humorous nonchalance.
Jeff Phillips as Billy Flynn has the perfect amount of bombast to match his refined, BS spiel. His sleek pin-stripe suit, purple silky tie, and polished shoes show us his main interest is only in seeing how many Benjamins he can get off these famed murder cases. Without a doubt, every audience member in Thalian hit the rafters over the puppeteering scene, “We Both Reached for the Gun,” as he schools Roxie on the best way to convince the jury of her innocence. The timing and choreography of the entire ensemble alongside Phillips and Goehring-Garrett astounds. To pull it off means nailing its pacing; they do.
Speaking of the ensemble: This one is the best I’ve seen onstage all season long—within any theatre company. There are copious amounts of talent among the backup performers here: Jason Aycock and David Loudermilk (who helped choreograph much of the dancing), along with Brad Mercier, Tracy Byrd, Timothy Mills, Beth Swindell, Brooklynne Williamson, and more. But Blaine Mower takes the cake. During the final courtroom scene, he acts his way through every juror’s seat, and manages to secure as many laughs as anything Phillips and Goehring-Garrett do front and center. The color and sparkle that radiate in this scene, complete with hyperbolic costuming and glitter galore, just heightens the show beyond belief. It’s especially so because the scenery remains quite barren for most of the play. It’s set in vaudeville style, so only props and lighting dictate scenery. Otherwise, the stage is everyone’s to shine and overcome, much like these criminal stars see themselves doing in their minds, despite the contradiction of truth and reality.
Of course, how could the show be so wonderful without the music! Lorene Walsh leads an onstage band in perfect harmony, showcasing big, brassy numbers, composed by John Kander, set against humorous lyrics written by Fred Ebb. It moves from theatrical to opera-like—the latter displayed by Miss Mary Sunshine in “A Little Bit of Good,” performed by a memorable “Julianna Dickson.” It also manages to pull on the heartstrings as heard in “Mister Cellophane” by Anthony David Lawson. The down-on-his-luck Amos squeezes all the empathy out of the audience; I wanted to hug him every time he was onstage.
I can’t urge readers enough to get off the couch and away from the TV to check out a wonderfully entertaining night in “Chicago.” It still has all the ridiculous smarm of media headlines, trials and tribulations on freedom, political corruptness, and zippy quips, much like our current state of affairs and politics. But it’s a much more satisfying take that won’t leave you feeling as dirty after it ends.