Bob Fosse collaborated with John Kander and Fred Ebb to create a show that in 1975 first dazzled audiences with its glitz, glamor, murder, and corruption, although the critical response was initially mixed. The show later enjoyed a 1996 revival that hasn’t quit. Chicago is that show, and it exemplifies the Fosse style. It is based on a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Watkins’ play was a satirical story based on two real-life, high profile murder cases from 1924 that she covered as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. A popular musical form of the time, jazz, figures very heavily in the musical score, and Palo Alto Players is pleased to open its 85th season with a spirited, high quality production of this classic Fosse extravaganza.
The story follows Velma Kelly (Janelle LaSalle) and Roxie Hart (Elizabeth Santana), murderesses each, as they compete for headlines to bolster their cases. Velma is a double murderess killing her sister and her philandering husband after catching them on the couch in a compromising position. Roxie killed her lover, and tried to con her husband into taking the rap for her crime. Their lawyer, Billy Flynn (Michael Monagle) is the archetypical flim-flam man, seeking headlines for himself. He’s oiliest of snakes, defending high profile clients for the money and fame, as long as they are newsworthy, and can pay his fee.
Roxie’s hapless husband Amos (Joey McDaniel) is blinded by his love for her, despite her indiscretions and deceit. And Matron “Mama” Morton (Jennifer Taylor Daniels) runs the jail, making quite a nice living from the cash she bleeds off of her charges for doing small favors such as making telephone calls for them. Bleeding heart reporter, Mary Sunshine (N. Sanchez) gives Roxie some positive press along the way. There’s a strong ensemble of merry murderesses and chorus boys to fill out the ranks and help tell the rest of the story.
Patrick Klein’s scenic design is very similar to the Broadway revival set with its multiple levels. The band stand is stair-stepped center stage (with a center aisle for stage action). The upper level has a platform that surrounds the band on three sides giving the actors several openings for entrances. There are double decker jail cells, and poles are set stage right and stage left in front of the cells and are reachable from the upper platform.
Jeffrey Hamby’s costume design is interesting. Some hallmarks of a Fosse show from a costume perspective are sexiness, garters, and hats. While a few of the outfits Velma and Roxie wear could be considered glamorous, the majority of the time, the bulk of the cast is dressed primarily in underwear and garters, which doesn’t give them anywhere to hide (though they don’t need it). They sometimes don other apparel on top, such as a jacket or a hat, to dress up the outfit. Exceptions are Amos, “Mama”, Billy, Velma, and Roxie who are more fully clothed for the bulk of the show.
Director/Choreographer Janie Scott keeps all the Fosse elements intact – and she’s cast some wonderful dancers. She’s also capitalized on the vaudevillian aspects of the show. Scott makes great use of the space with her dancers not only making many Fosse-inspired moves, but they also climb the walls with great precision and speed. If the dancers didn’t have gymnastic experience before this production, they can certainly now claim such proficiency. They often flip over and around the cell bars, and they execute artful pole moves starting on the upper level.
The most impressive aspect of this production is the solid dance execution. The cast is well matched, and everyone in dance roles excels. The dancing in the opening number, “All That Jazz” is sharp, tight, sexy, and titillates the audience with a nice sample of what the show has to offer. When we meet the murderesses in the oft copied “Cell Block Tango”, each murderess tells her tale with chorus boys playing the victims of their crimes. The choreography is stunning and sexy, and it’s executed beautifully, all the way down to the flashes of costumed color that are exposed as they reenact the murders that got them incarcerated. There are only a few momentary phasing issues, such as when the boys are essentially keeping (a very quick) time early in “When Velma Takes the Stand”.
LaSalle and Santana play well off of one another, and Monagle is very natural as Billy. All three display an ease and comfort level with their characters that make the audience believe them, even when their characters are telling bold-faced lies.
Katie Coleman’s band (in the program it’s listed as an orchestra, but this is really a band) is hot. The music in this show is challenging, and overall, Coleman’s musicians are up to the task. Being center stage, they are always visible (and audible), and there’s very little downtime. Many of the short dialogue sequences are underscored, and the show tends to run from one musical number into the next. One particularly nice production choice is having the exit music played concert style, spotlighting various soloists, before the house lights come up. It’s a short piece, but it lets the musicians shine in a way that doesn’t often happen in musical theatre.
The balance within the band is good, as is the sound balance between cast and band. Standout vocals include Daniels’ rendition of “When You’re Good to Mama”, Santana’s “Roxie”, and McDaniel’s “Mr. Cellophane”. McDaniel’s song is enhanced by creative staging as he smoothly transforms before our eyes. There are a few times when some lyrics are lost in “All That Jazz” and “Cell Block Tango”, but that appears to be a result of actors hitting the boundaries of their vocal ranges, thereby losing some of their projection. There are also a few missed pitches in some songs, but these should smooth out quickly. While there are some solid vocalists in the cast, dance proficiency was clearly the overall casting priority.
Several numbers, such as “We Both Reached For the Gun”, “Razzle Dazzle” and its following courtroom capers, and “I Can’t Do It Alone” all bring out the satirical nature of the story. They show just what a circus the legal system can be when celebrity trumps justice. And it’s fun to watch.
Palo Alto Players is rightfully proud of this production. If you like Fosse’s style, then come let PAP dazzle you with Chicago.
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA
When: Continues Thursdays through Sundays through 27 September 2015
See http://www.paplayers.org or call (650)329-0891 for more information or to order tickets.
(Photo credit: Robert Mayer Photo)
Additional Chicago references:
Chicago Diamond Edition (DVD)
Chicago – The Musical (1996 Broadway Revival Cast) (CD)
Chicago (1975) / O.B.C. (CD)
Chicago: The Musical (Broadway Vocal Selections)
Chicago, A Musical Vaudeville (Book)
Chicago: With the Chicago Tribune Articles that Inspired It
Merry Murderers: The Farcical (Re)Figuration of the Femme Fatale in Maurine Dallas Watkins Chicago (1927) and its Various Adaptations