Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's reviews of The Complete Works of Williams Shakespeare (abridged), Of Mice and Men and Hysteria
Chicago tells the story of two murderesses in 1920s Chicago and is a satirical fantasy on the scandal of that period and the glorified celebrity that was the result of these sensationalized criminals. Roxie Hart has murdered her lover. While she is able to convince her husband Amos to take the blame for the killing, it isn't long before the truth comes out and she finds herself in Cook County Jail. Velma Kelly is also imprisoned for killing both her husband and her sister in a moment of jealous rage. They battle with each other to keep their cases, and names, in the spotlight, and together Velma and Roxie depend on Matron "Mama" Morton and lawyer Billy Flynn to not only help them fool the media into believing they are innocent, but also in, hopefully, getting them off. As Mama says, "In Chicago, murder is a form of entertainment" and songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb brilliantly use a virtual non-stop parade of vaudeville style show-stopping tunes to portray and comment on the inner thoughts of the characters.
Cook gives Roxie the right balance of warmth, vulnerability, and charm set against the shrewd knowledge of what she needs to do to get her way. I've seen previous actresses portray Roxie as a simpleton, yet Cook's decision to portray her as cunning, and even all-knowing, brings the role to life and makes Roxie a vibrant character with multiple layers. She also gives a clear spontaneity to her line readings that makes the comic ones zing and her touching moments sincere, and even downright heartbreaking when she realizes she actually may be found guilty. Cook's delivery of her many songs is vibrant, with perfect, powerful, and soaring vocals combined with non-stop, thrilling dance moves. Cook makes you root for her Roxie, even though you know she is guilty of murder, and that alone says a lot. Cook is a stellar triple threat.
Jenny Hintze is Velma, the former vaudeville performer who is threatened by Roxie's arrival. Hintze is very good at showing Velma's constant fight to make herself a star. She dances up a storm, while belting her numbers out, including delivering an exceptional, powerful version of the show's best known song, "All That Jazz." And, like Cook, she gets you to feel for Velma. She is sassy and smart in her portrayal, full of energy and a robust sense of life. As Billy Flynn, the lawyer for both ladies, Walter Belcher is good, bringing a nice dose of reptilian charm to the part. Brian Runbeck's Amos is sweet, sincere, touching and funny, making this thick-skulled, put upon husband one you notice, even though no one in his life does. Terey Summers brings down the house as the saucy, cheeky, Matron "Mama" Morton. Her deep, thrilling voice brings a gravitas to her songs, including a saucy rendition of "When You're Good to Mama," and her wicked and playful comic timing are superb. L. Mitchell is sublime as Mary Sunshine, the reporter who follows the cases, hitting some impressive high notes, and the entire ensemble cast has the right balance of verve, cynicism and sass, including fun, featured turns by always reliable Lynzee Foreman and Laurie Trygg.
While the juggernaut Broadway revival, which is still running and about to celebrate its 19th anniversary, has minimal sets and costumesall dark greys and blacksand even abridged the original 1975 book of the show, that's not the case with Phoenix Theatre's production, which is a refreshing change. Director Michael Barnard sets the show firmly in the colorful, razzle-dazzle vaudeville world of the 1920s. His direction of the cast is exceptional and he keeps the show moving at a fast clip, though the trial scene in act two does bog things down for just a brief moment, so it's understandable why they trimmed that scene for the Broadway revival. Greg Jaye and Joel Birch's set design is creative, with stunning art deco touches and lush colors, complemented by Michael Eddy's vibrant and ever-changing lighting design and a parade of smashing costumes from Cari Smith, including some inventive prison-striped satin outfits for the murderesses.
While the original Broadway production and the revival both used Bob Fosse's choreography, choreographer Sam Hay has come up with a number of styles which occasionally hint at but don't appear to actually copy Fosse's steps. Barnard and Hay's decision to incorporate the tango into the "Cell Block Tango" and other dance steps of the period, including the Charleston, into other numbers, is a stellar choice. His "Me and My Baby" is exceptional and his choreography for "Roxie" includes some splendidly fluid acrobatic lifts.
Phoenix Theatre's Chicago is a thrilling, sharp and sexy production, brought to life by Kate E. Cook's stunning and exceptional star tune as Roxie, Michael Barnard's superb direction, Hay's vibrant and varied choreography, and some striking creative elements. If you've only seen the revival version of the musical or if you've never seen this show, you owe it to yourself to see Phoenix Theatre's simply sublime Chicago.
Chicago runs through October 4th, 2015, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at www.phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Music by John Kander
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Members of Actors' Equity Association