All That Jazz in Ivoryton
By Geary Danihy
Seems to be something recently in the Connecticut water that, after several gulps, brings on a slight euphoria, a “Hey, we can do that” feeling that has led Playhouse on Park in West Hartford to stage A Chorus Line (running until July 31), Summer Theatre of New Canaan to board West Side Story (just opened -- more about it in a separate review) and the folks at the Ivoryton Playhouse to take on Chicago. All three shows are what you might call “Big” musicals that thrived on Broadway stages. The task for these Connecticut theaters has been to downscale (given space and budgetary considerations) while still delivering what people expect. Playhouse on Park was, with some minor quibbles, successful, and so is Ivoryton. As directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood, Chicago is often sassy and sleek and offers some fine performances by actors in roles that have become musical theater icons.
Those who are only familiar with the movie version of the show, which was released in 2002, may find the staged version a bit skimpy with regards to the book, written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse and based on a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. The film, as films are wont to do, opened up the story and allowed for greater character definition and interaction. The biggest problem with the show’s book is that one of the major plot lines is that accused murderess Roxie Hart (Lyn Phillistine) must face trial, which happens late in the second act, and it’s a downer, for the show has been sailing along quite nicely until this drag anchor is thrown out. Fortunately, it’s followed by a spot-on finale that unites the two leads in a great song and dance number.
The basic premise of the show is that murder pays, at least in 1920s Chicago. The aforementioned Roxie kills her lover and ends up in the Cook County Jail awaiting trial. There she meets the nightclub singer, Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris), also awaiting trial for allegedly knocking off her husband and her sister. These two, along with five other women, are under the watchful eye of Matron “Mama” Morton (Shenique Denise Trotman), who believes that one hand washes the other, often with cash. Velma is being represented by the shyster lawyer Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton), who transfers his loyalties to Roxie as her star rises while he squeezes money from Roxie’s husband, Amos (Ian Greer Shain), a man of “transparent” qualities.
The show has some fine moments, including the opening number, “And All That Jazz,” in which Harris shows that she has the Velma character well in hand. During the number, Roxie commits her act of murder, and it’s done using one of two undecorated metal scaffolds that set designer Martin Scott Marchitto has inexplicably incorporated into the somewhat sedate (given we’re talking about the Jazz Era) scenic design. The two metal towers stand stage left and right and are visual sore thumbs -- they’re also too tall: in the courtroom scene the judge presides from atop the scaffold stage right. He’s basically lost (perhaps because he’s somewhat poorly lit).
The cast, under Underwood’s guidance, nails most of the important scenes: “Cell Block Tango,” and the wonderful “We Both Reach for the Gun.” There are also classy renditions of “Me and My Baby” and “When Velma Takes the Stand.” There are, however, some disappointments. Shain’s “Mr. Cellophane” never truly evokes its vaudeville heritage (and what’s with the quasi-magic act at the end of the number?), and Trotman, in “When You’re Good to Mama,” “Mama” Morton’s signature song, seems a bit retrained, losing the opportunity to milk the numerous double-entendres for all they are worth. And then there’s the aforementioned trial scene during which the Mary Sunshine (Z. Spiegel) reveal moment is all but lost.
All in all, Ivoryton’s “Chicago” is an enjoyable production that could have been just a bit more...well... “jazzier.”
“Chicago” runs through July 24. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.