At the Drury Lane Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Oakbrook Terrace The musical “Chicago” was a major hit in the mid 1970’s. It ran for more than two years on Broadway and had impeccable artistic credentials—score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, direction and choreography by Bob Fosse, and starring performances by Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. In 1996, “Chicago” was revived in a reconfigured concept and is now entering its 21st year on Broadway, not to mention fairly regular road show appearances in the Loop.
The Drury Lane artistic braintrust has decided to go back to the original “Chicago” of the 1970’s, staging the show as audiences saw it 40 years ago. The show is the same as far as its music and book are concerned. It’s the staging that divides it from the current megahit. The musical can thus be reviewed from two perspectives, as the 1970’s version on its own merits and in comparison to its longer running second edition.
First, let the record show that “Chicago” is an outstanding musical in either format. It one of the darkest and most cynical shows in American theater history but it is presented in such an entertaining way that the average viewer will chuckle all the way through. Sure, it’s an indictment of the corruption, vulgarity, decadence, and immorality its creators saw in American society of the 1920’s, and by extension, to the present day. It’s just that “Chicago” is so much fun to watch and hear.
Brett Beiner Photography
“Chicago” is based on actual events in the Windy City during the Roaring Twenties in Chicago. Roxie Hart is a chorus girl who murders her two-timing lover. She escapes punishment through the flamboyant manipulation of gullible public opinion and the press by her slimeball lawyer, Billy Flynn. She winds up a star in vaudeville in partnership with Velma Kelly, another lawbreaker Roxie meets in the Cook County jail. And that’s about all there is to the show’s book.
“Chicago” doesn’t attempt a straight realistic narrative. The storyline is a shaky skeleton for a series of vaudeville-mannered songs and dances that illustration if not celebrate, the shady practices of the justice system. The numbers are introduced by a master of ceremonies. Characters speak and sing directly to the audience, often assisted by a chorus of young men and women who come and go as the numbers require their presence.
The Drury Lane production harkens back to the original, with scenery, costumes, recognizable props, and other conventional attributes of a traditional show. Entrances and exits are made from the rear and side of the stage. In the newer “Chicago,” the performers wear rehearsal clothes and visibly gather on the sides of the stage awaiting their next cue. These points are noted as a frame of reference. There are other differences, but what’s the point of reviewing a show the audience isn’t seeing? Many viewers will be familiar with “Chicago” only from its current version and they can make their own comparisons and contrasts.
The two major positives about “Chicago” are the show itself in all its idiosyncratic glory and the magnificent starring performances by Kelly Felthous (Roxie) and Alena Waters (Velma). I saw the original version on its cross country tour and the current version maybe five times and I never saw a better pair of performances. Physically the women are strikingly different, Felthous is short and pixie-ish with plenty of rough edges reflecting Roxie’s tough life. Watters is taller and svelte, suggesting Velma’s more sophisticated background. What the performers share is a limitless talent for singing and dancing in two high energy roles, and they can act well up to the mark. If Felthous ends up making the greater impression, it’s because the show is more of a showcase for Roxie.
Roxie and Velma carry the show, involved either singly or together in well over half the songs, including extended numbers that make extreme demands on each performer’s stamina They are the pair who sell such pieces as “All That Jazz,” “Me and My Baby,” “Velma Takes the Stand,” ”Class,” and “Nowadays.”
Brett Beiner Photography
The production is undercut by a miscast Guy Lockard as Billy Flynn. Lockard doesn’t evoke Flynn’s sleazy charm, robbing the show of an essential emotional dimension. However, E. Faye Butler is good as jail matron Mama Morton, providing a typical E. Faye Butler performance full of sass and wisecracks. Master of ceremonies Michael Accardo sits in a booth above the stage, a newspaper city editor who introduces the numbers and tells the audience to turn off their cell phones, all in a perfect “Front Page” manner. Jason Brill is good as Roxie’s Casper Milquetoast husband and would be better if his pathetic self effacing manner wasn’t blemished by comic shtick. And J. London as gossip columnist Mary Sunshine got the usual surprised laughs from the opening night viewers at the character’s unveiling late in the show.
Director William Osetek guides the production with a respect for its 1970’s roots. The only major embellishment I noted was expanding the role of the Hungarian prisoner who was the first woman to be hung for murder in Cook County history. Choreographer Jane Lanier was mindful of Bob Fosse’s original choreography in the Drury Lane dancing while keeping her talented chorus moving athletically through almost 20 numbers.
The theater’s playing area opens up into too much vertical and horizontal space, but Kevin Depinet has created a colorful and authentic period set. Sully Ratke’s costumes include plenty of skimpy outfits for the ladies of the chorus, Roxie, and Velma, credibly capturing the 1920’s look. Lee Fiskness designed the complex lighting effects and Ray Nardelli did the same for the sound design. Claire Moores earns props for her wig and hair designs. Roberta Duchak’s is the music director and Chris Sargent did the conducting. The Kander score sounded just fine.
In weighing the two versions of the show, I would select the later one. It’s intimacy connects more viscerally with an audience that is distanced from the show’s entertaining but craven heart by the large Drury lane playing area, often consisting of little more than decorative empty space. The character of Billy Flynn does not receive his due and that hurts the show’s satirical impact. But mostly preference between the two versions is in the eye of the beholder. What isn’t in dispute is that Felthous and Watters command the stage with superior performances. Even with some quibbles, the production earns the Drury Lane management approval for taking a high risk project and executing it with much style and imagination. This is a quality enterprise that deserves more praise than an A for effort.
“Chicago” runs through June 18 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $60. Call 630 530 0111 or visit www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 stars.
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