Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Like Roxie, Chicago has been around a lot longer than anyone ever expected it to. A revival of the show has been running on Broadway since November, 1996, the longest running American Broadway show of all time, second only to the made-in-England Phantom of the Opera as overall long-run champ. That revival is based on a New York City Encores! concert-style production presented just six months earlier.
Why was Chicago overlooked after it opened on Broadway on June 3, 1976? It received a range of reviews. Bob Fosse's direction and choreography, and the high-test star power of Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach were generally praised. However, to some, the show's structure, telling its sordid tale through a series of sly vaudeville turns like those common to the 1920s era in which it takes place, made the show feel like a gimmick, a cynical strategy for presenting a story that was itself very cynical. Some found it to be icy and Kander and Ebb's score without charm. Of course, it had its fans as well, but hardly universal acclaim.
Soon, Chicago was all but trampled by A Chorus Line, which opened seven weeks later. Chicago still had a quite respectable twenty-seven month run, but then was quickly forgotten. A Chorus Line continued to hold court, and the optimistic Annie had joined it. It was a time not very long after Watergate cast a pall over America's spirit. A Chorus Line was about earnest people reaching for their dreams, Annie was a sweet story of the sun coming out and redemption. Those shows were the uppers the public craved. They didn't want Chicago reminding them about the corruption and greed lurking beneath our shiny surfaces.
It may have been that by 1996, with Bill Clinton in the White House, cynicism had been recast as irony and was viewed as sophisticated, even cool. The stripped-down Encores! staging seemed to fit more organically with the show's structure as a series of vaudeville turns. The success of the revival led to a 2002 film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. The movie's popularity helped Chicago became a household title that draws in tourists. That, and very smart marketing and recasting, has kept the show going these twenty-three years, and who knows how much longer.
After all this time, and frequent visits from national touring companies, we have the local premiere of the Broadway staple. Who better than fearless Theater Latté Da to take a show that's been around a long while and make it shine and feel brand new?
Roxie Hart is two-timing her sweet but dumb husband Amos with Fred Casely, and when the Casely walks out on her, she shoots him. In prison she meets Velma Kelly, a low-wattage vaudevillian also up for murder who plans to use her publicity to make a bigger splash on stage when she gets out. Roxie, who harbors her own showbiz dreams, likes the sound of that. She and Velma compete over attention from the press, a court date, even their lawyer, Billy Flynn. Flynn is a forked-tongue operator who chooses his cases not based on whether a client is guilty or innocent, but whether they can pony up his steep fees. An on-the-take prison matron, "Mama" Morton, and an easily suckered reporter named Mary Sunshine complete the principals, but plenty of other sultry murderesses and headline chasing reporters are on board to keep the joint jumping.
Latté Da Artistic Director Peter Rothstein has assembled a winning team who draw every ounce of satire and gallows humor out of the piece, while keeping spirits high with flashy staging and attention to the musical elements. Kander and Ebb's score, over time, has become appreciated for songs that convey the values, crass as they are, of these characters in a range of melodic styles, from the zippy pace of "Me and My Baby" to the torch song "My Own Best Friend" to the hurdy-gurdy of "Razzle Dazzle." Music director Denise Prosek leads a small (five player) but great sounding band who are dropped into diamond shaped cut-out spaces in the stage, so that only their heads and shoulders appear.
The stage, with design by Eli Sherlock (the same fevered imagination that placed an actual carnival on stage for Latté Da's Assassins), is built up into a shiny cherry-wood raised platform that criss-crosses those band members' foxholes to form runways on which the performances are staged. Around the apron of that platform are drink rails, with stools on which lucky audience members can sit, close up, with their choice of beverage from the lobby bar. A bridge from the stage crosses straight out between the first few rows of orchestra seats to allow staging to spill out onto the wide-open row separating the lower and upper seating areas. Rothstein makes splendid use of all of these spaces, creating a production that comes close to completely surrounding the audience.
Kelli Foster Warder's choreography emphasizes small groups, hand and hip gestures, and other more subtle, character-driven movements. The material and the space do not lend themselves to large group, leaping dances. The solid work by costume designer Alice Fredrickson, lighting designer Mary Shabatura, and sound designer C. Andrew Mayer all help this Chicago to shimmer.
Britta Ollmann is superb as Roxie, her singing voice better than any Roxie I have ever heard, her attitude of pure selfishness cheekily delivered, and with solid moves in big numbers, especially making a treat out of "Roxie" as she imagines herself a great big star. Michelle de Joya is a shade less winning as Velma. She sings and dances well, putting on a great show as Velma rehearses her court appearance ("When Velma Takes the Stand"), but she doesn't convey Velma's iron spine, serrated claws, and dragon breath. Her Velma seems not quite bad enough, no match for Roxie. She does rise to the occasion, though, to make Velma's faux duet with Roxie, "My Own Best Friend," a stirring ode to raw self-interest.
Robert Berdahl conjures just the right mix of slime-ball, egotist and pragmatist as Billy, with totally winning delivery of "All I Care About Is Love" and "Razzle Dazzle", and makes the ease with which he drops one client for another if the payoff is better seem, well, just good business. Regina Marie Williams brings a fierce demeanor to Matron "Mama" Morton, putting fire into her credo, "When You're Good to Mama." The audience favorite, though, is Reed Sigmund's as Amos, Roxie's pitifully deceived hubby. His naïve persona is totally endearing, and his heartfelt delivery of "Mr. Cellophane" brought down the house at the performance I attended. Fernando Collado has the requisite soprano to make Mary Sunshine appear unreasonably good-hearted, especially amid this gathering of human vultures.
At this juncture, times again are saturated with cynicism about our government, business, and national character, but rather than retreating from it, the public is seeking out bald-faced depictions of that truth, wanting to name the forces that threaten us. Perhaps now we can see Chicago not as downer but as a clarion call against the evils of corruption, greed and self-delusion. If it doesn't accomplish thatit is, after all, only a musicalit still provides enormous entertainment that is smart, sexy, bubbly, thoroughly engaging, presented with peak form professionalismand all that jazz.
Chicago has been extended through November 17, 2019, at Theater Latté Da, Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Ticket prices begin at $33.00, with top prices fluctuating based on demand. For tickets, ticket pricing, and information, call 612-339-3303 or visit theaterlatteda.com.
Book: Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, script adaptation by David Thompson; Music: John Kander; Lyrics: Fred Ebb; Director: Peter Rothstein; Choreographer: Kelli Foster Warder; Music Director: Denise Prosek; Assistant Director: Anna Moskowitz; Scenic Design: Eli Sherlock; Costume Design: Alice Fredrickson; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Hair and Wig Design: Paul Bigot; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Production Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Assistant Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld.
Cast: Robert O. Berdahl (Billy Flynn), Dorian Brooke (ensemble), Fernando Collado (Mary Sunshine/ ensemble), Michelle de Joya (Velma Kelly), Jaclyn Juola (ensemble), Joey Miller (ensemble), Britta Ollmann (Roxie Hart), Dylan Rugh (ensemble), Maureen Sherman-Mendez (ensemble), Reed Sigmund (Amos Hart), Elly Stahlke (ensemble), Jessica Staples (ensemble), Regina Marie Williams (Matron "Mama" Morton).