Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Chicago tells the story of two murderesses in 1920s Chicago and is a satirical fantasy on a scandal of that period and the glorified celebrity that was the result of the 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 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 hopefully in getting them off. As Mama says, "In Chicago, murder is a form of entertainment."
With a virtual nonstop parade of vaudeville-style showstopping tunes, songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote a score that brilliantly comments on the inner thoughts of the characters. Every single song in this musical is a hit. Ebb and Bob Fosse's book, based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, is fast, smart and funny.
FHT's production and cast are both small, scrappy, and fairly minimal. But in this case the small size of the production and cast works perfectly not only to provide a great sense of intimacy and connection to the characters on the small Fountain Hills stage, but, by not adding any extraneous ensemble members, to keep the focus always on Roxie and Velma. Director Peter J. Hill and choreographer Noel Irick do excellent work. The characters in this show are mostly caricatures, yet Hill's direction provides layers, nuance and dimensions in all of the leads. Irick's choreography isn't overly busy or unnecessary, with just the right amount of Bob Fosse's original signature stylized movement included. Jennifer Whiting and her five-piece band deliver an exceptional sound throughout in the best musical accompaniment I've heard at FHT.
The cast is led by Victoria Fairclough and Gina C. Tomkus as Roxie and Velma. Both are very good in ensuring these characters are portrayed as women who know what they need to do in order to survive, while also showing that they are somewhat unsure and afraid of what the outcome might be if things don't go their way. As Roxie, Fairclough evokes the right amount of cunning charm, along with confusion, for this young woman who has found herself on death row, while Tomkus instills Velma with a perfect "know it all" sensibility and a seemingly endless amount of determination. Both ladies have big, bright and vibrant singing voices plus skilled dance abilities, making every one of their songs a showstopper.
Scot Claus is perfectly smarmy and incredibly direct as Billy Flynn. His big, clear voice hits some impressive notes and he oozes charm in a slick and oily way, which is appropriate for this lawyer who truly has no concern for his clients and is only interested in getting paid for his efforts. As Roxie's put-upon, clueless yet sweet husband Amos, Michael Paul Wallot is a stand out, even though his character is one hardly anyone ever notices. Morgan Ottersbach is cheeky and direct as the saucy Matron "Mama" Morton with a beautiful singing voice and firm stage presence, and Pat Styles is sublime as Mary Sunshine, the reporter who follows the cases. FHT's ensemble includes five talented women, Summer Beckman, Riley Johnson, Haylee Klein, Estee Oglesbee, and Anna Sell, who, with Tomkus, deliver a scintillating version of "Cell Block Tango," while JT Turner and Eric Williams play a few small parts and provide some fine dance accompaniment to both "Roxy" and "Me and My Baby."
Hill's set design may be minimal, with a few period art deco touches, but Stephen Cihak's projections of period photographs that quickly and effectively establish the location of each scene are excellent. Gail Oliphant and Irick's costumes are lush, incredibly detailed and superb. My only quibble has to do with the sound. Even though FHT's space is very small and since I believe the cast aren't wearing microphones, there were a few times at the performance I attended when some of the lines and lyrics couldn't be heard. Better projection or some microphones would greatly help alleviate this issue.
Fountain Hills Theater's Chicago is filled with the right balance of verve, cynicism and sass. With a talented cast, striking direction, and crisp choreography it is a thrilling and sexy production of this much-loved musical. The run has already been extended a week to September 24th and I could see it running even longer.
Fountain Hills Theater's production of Chicago runs through September 24th, 2017, with performances at 11445 N. Saguaro Blvd. in Fountain Hills AZ. Information on tickets can be found at www.fhtaz.org or by calling 480-837-9661.
Director/Set & Light Design: Peter J. Hill