Chicago: Razzle Dazzle without Rage

By Brooks Appelbaum

The Ivoryton Playhouse production of “Chicago,” running through July 24, provides the excitement of seeing this big show up close. Too, Artistic Director Jacqui Hubbard and director/choreographer Todd L. Underwood have amassed a group of terrifically talented singers, dancers, and actors. What’s not onstage, though, are the musical’s savage satire and raw rage. Book, music, and lyrics collaborators Fred Ebb, John Kander, and Bob Fosse (Fosse famously created the original choreography) created a Brechtian piece that indicted every character and most importantly, the audience. However, in Underwood’s version, the “razzle dazzle” is played almost entirely for fun.

“Chicago” takes up the dark story of criminals as celebrities, showing us the corruption of the prison system, the court system, and the press while at the same time daring us not to enjoy the salacious stories we may condemn but also crave. (It’s been said that Fosse, writing in the early 1970’s, was inspired, in part at least, by his reaction to the Watergate scandal.) The terrific opening number, “All that Jazz” sets the musical squarely in the Roaring Twenties, but clearly the corruption it depicts has only become more relevant.

The plot concerns two murderesses: Roxie Hart (Lynn Philistine) and Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris). In addition to a penchant for blood and notoriety, both women rightly see their crimes as gateways to fame, and both harbor grand vaudeville ambitions. Additionally, both share a lawyer, Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton), who charges exorbitant sums for concocting ploys that will save his very guilty clients from the hangman’s noose.

Head warden at the women’s prison, Matron “Mama” Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman), is also on the take, making it clear that “when you’re good to Mama/Mama’s good to you.” And of course, every member of the press, most notably sob sister journalist Mary Sunshine (Z. Spiegel) -- despite her hilarious signature number, in which she exhorts us to find “A Little Bit of Good” in everyone -- wants a part in the bloodthirsty circus.

The original show was intended to seduce and disturb us, just as Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” does. We should thrill to the fabulous music, the cleverly unconventional structure that mirrors a 1920’s vaudeville show, and the brashly amoral nature of every character (except Roxie’s sad sack husband, Amos, played by Ian Greer Shain, the only virtuous character, and therefore all but invisible). The raw sexuality of the dancers, both male and female, should be both beautiful and sinister: we can’t turn away from these slithering bodies even if we want to.

And here lies the problem with Underwood’s vision of the show. While he might need to tame the sexuality just a bit, for practical reasons of audience (the house was full at the top of the show I attended, but not quite so full at the beginning of the second act), “Chicago” cannot succeed as a feel-good musical. And that’s what Underwood has created, as much as is possible given the script and music.

Stacey Harris’s Velma is cute rather than cutthroat: we sense little of this woman’s anger, competitiveness, and dangerous ambition. As Roxie, Lyn Philistine has moments, most notably in the terrific number, “We Both Reached for the Gun.” But she, too, has been directed to play a slightly crazed kewpie doll, rather than a woman whose desperation and despair are palpable. As Billy Flynn, Christopher Sutton, with his icy blue eyes, comes closest to capturing the deadpan satire that his role requires; as a result, his big numbers (“All I Care About” and “Razzle Dazzle”) are both the funniest and the most discomfiting.

As singers and dancers, all these actors are terrific, as is every member of the ensemble. Too, Underwood has staged the action expertly, using every inch and level of the small space.  Most notably, the fabulous orchestra is set above the stage, behind bars. Set Designer Martin Scott Marchitto, Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott, and Sound Designer Tate R. Burmeister all contribute to the show’s look, and Costume and Wig Designer, Elizabeth Cipollina, does especially marvelous work.

This “Chicago” is admirable and fun, but if Velma, Roxie, and Billy were to see it, they would unanimously pronounce it “guilty” of replacing savagery with sass, and mockery with a raucous good time.

Special to the Shoreline Times

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