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The Killer Dillers of Pizzazz:

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Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville
City Stage • 21 N. Front St., Ste 501
1/14 – 16, 21 – 23, 28 – 30; 8 p.m.
Tickets: $22-$28

AND ALL THAT JAZZ: Morganna Bridgers, Adam Poole and Caitlin Becka star as Roxie Hart, Billy Flynn and Velma Kelly, respectively, in City Stage’s ‘Chicago.’ Courtesy photo.

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Director Nick Gray has nailed City Stage’s opening production of 2011. By following a “less is more” mien, he fills the Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse production with nuance and subtleties that shine brighter than flashy lights and expectant razzle dazzle. Yet, he hasn’t lost the kinetic pace essential to enveloping audiences with awe and ease in this multi award-winning play.

“Chicago” follows Roxie Hart, a murderess caught in the throes of an infidelity scheme in the Prohibition era, a time when a lady had yet to be hanged in Illinois. She’s awaiting trial while locked away in the same penitentiary where vaudeville starlight Velma Kelly resides—who’s also awaiting trial for killing her lover and her sister in a scandalous tryst. In fact, the Cook County Jail is known for its Murderess Row, featuring a host of other femme fatales that all claim, without a doubt, “He had it coming!” When the media-whore-of-a-lawyer Billy Flynn enters the scene to free Hart and Kelly, a competitive game of cellblock cat-and-mouse ensues between the ladies, as they vie for Flynn’s and the media’s attention.

“Chicago” offers more than just compelling dance numbers, stunning costume design and animated characters. It gives insight into the American obsession with celebrity, tabloids and political wrongdoings guided by corrupt justice. Though the message has interesting parallels to modern society, the reason it excels at City Stage has everything to do with its boastful amusement and spot-on execution.

The acting in “Chicago” soars. All major roles have been thoroughly cast, and all deliver with copious amounts of vitality, vavoom and fervor. Caitlin Becka as the seductive, high-falutin Velma Kelly seems born to play America’s most provocative criminal. Her strong voice can only be outdone by her enigmatic sex appeal. She sashays with intent, cuts her eyes with motive and shimmies with purpose, all to solidify her star power as priority number one on everyone’s agenda. Becka does it convincingly so and owns the attention no matter where she flounces and glides onstage.

Morganna Bridgers as Roxie Hart brings a varied approach to the demure blond bombshell. She cashes in on making the protagonist the ultimate, amateurish wannabe star. Every cooky facial expression, exaggerated movement and attempt at charm comes with a hefty dose of flimsy ditziness and a somewhat daffy swagger. It all pays off in her most captivating performance—if not the most exciting number in the play—“We Both Reached for the Gun.” In the marionette scene with Adam Poole, who plays Billy Flynn and her ventriloquist, she flails her arms, spazzes out and does it with impressive precision. Together, Poole and Bridgers bring puppet and puppeteer to life with staggering syncopation. I wanted to reach for the rewind button immediately.

Speaking of which, Poole may be one of Wilmington’s below-the-radar actors deserving of more praise. While his last performance in Red Barn’s “Proof” showcased only a smidgen of depth as a character actor, “Chicago” frees him as a full-fledged, show-stopping performer. Not only does he understand Billy Flynn’s acerbic demeanor and lavish need for power and money, but he gives Flynn the right amount of dynamic pizzazz in all of his song-and-dance numbers, a la the finger-snapping “Razzle Dazzle” and “All I Care About.” Poole schmoozes with allure but not with slime.

Mama Morton must be brought to life by a commanding presence, and Makia Martin is a perfect fit. She’s brassy, confident and very much assertive onstage. Her performance of “When You’re Good to Mama” brought the house to life with many hoots and hollers. What’s most astounding is how she proves that vigor and sass come from within—something hard-learned, no matter the production.

The ensemble cast, including an adorable Rachael Moser as reporter Mary Sunshine (donning a superb newspaper-made overcoat, nonetheless), Seth Rosenke as a timid Amos (played with Charlie Chaplin-like care) and almost a dozen dancers, they each add to the over-the-top zeal emitted from the circus-like spectacle unfolding throughout the show. A lot of movement takes place on such a small, minimally decorated stage, and it all fascinates. Black and white keys are painted on the floor, cellblocks align the back wall, and a white screen pulls over them to reveal salacious shadow dancers. Effortless stair cases move while the action is still going on, which deserves much applause. Long, unnecessary scene changes could easily deter from the fast pace of the production; it was nice to see a company address the technical needs without succumbing to a lull in the show’s energy.

Naturally, a review of “Chicago” can’t be done without addressing the music or the choreography. Kevin Lee-y Green seemingly brings out the best in dancers. Every number entertains, especially “Cell Block Tango.” The performers connect with beguiling energy and intense dedication. Though the tap dancers deserve even more stage time, my only other qualm comes from Velma’s solo performance in “I Can’t Do It Alone” and Roxie and Velma’s duo act, “Hot Honey Rag.” The actual dancing should have been pushed a bit further: less seductive dips and leg-drags and a bit more in the way of wowing foot work. After a while, it seems repetitive and redundant.

John Krander’s music is played with care thanks to musical director Chiaki Ito, who always has her hands and ears alert for the best score. Her musicians resounded with pitch-perfect jumps, jives and wails. It could not have been done without the professionally adept Rob Murphey, Lorene Walsh, Ryan Woodell and Bob Russell.

Black, white and red make up the color palette, with a touch of electric blue donned from the spunky narrator/ring leader Candace Evanofski. Though sequins and bright lights aren’t the building blocks to a normally ornate and sparkly show, it still has glitz to the nth degree.

City Stage’s “Chicago” is easily the best musical staged Wilmington over the last few years. Audiences have three more weekends to catch the killer dillers and their magical vaudeville show!

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