Presented by Boiler Room Theatre
Through June 7 at The Factory at Franklin
Chicago debuted on Broadway in 1975 and has since become a very famous show, spawning co-creator Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” style of bawdy, suggestive choreography and the rinky-tinky jazz-and-ragtime-influenced melodies of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Of course, now Chicago is the toast of Hollywood as the most recent Academy Award winner for Best Picture. But until last weekend, I had never seen Chicago in any incarnation. That situation is now remediedin spades.
With Boiler Room Theatre opening a new production of this cynical, tawdry tale of lady murderers in the Windy City of the 1930s, it seemed right, by way of homework, to catch the film. And now having seen it, I can tick off about 10 reasons why Chicago the movie struck me as a failure. I found it tedious, soulless, fraudulently conceived and infected with music-video-itis. And Renée Zellweger, isto be kind about itsimply a weird and off-putting presence.
But watching the film did prove useful, serving as setup for the local production. Hollywood’s labored and now overhyped mediocrity is quite a different animal than the stage original, which has a straightforwardness and an economy of writing that allows tighter pacing and a pulsatingly smooth approach to the musical numbers. The film explodes Fosse and Ebb’s scriptbased on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkinsinto a glitzy phantasmagoria that justifies itself on its own terms well enough. The play is earthier and more bare-bones, allowing the audience to focus more on the gritty satireand to worry less about whether musical sequences are supposed to be providing fantastical counterpoint to the “real-life” drama that unfolds simultaneously. In theatrical musicals, people singand we don’t need any overtly stated justification for that.
All that said, it would be pointless to make any more comparisons between the film and the Boiler Room rendition. They’re patently different experiencesone is a mega-budget blockbuster, the other a modestly funded hometown production. And the bottom line is that I enjoyed seeing Chicago onstage a lot more.
Boiler Room producer Lewis Kempfer directs the production and, generally speaking, does it nicely. The limitations of the company’s small stage are resolved efficiently by two wide staircases left and right, with musical director Jamey Green’s slick eight-piece band poised on a unifying platform above, from which the actors also perform a few scenes. Everything else is played front and center and left and right, as a mostly solid cast hoofs and belts and mugs and wiggles its way through some 20 musical numbers and the spicy story of two women attempting to parlay criminal notoriety into a post-acquittal publicity windfall.
The principal actors at the Boiler Room aren’t high-profile talents to compete with the likes of Richard Gere or Catherine Zeta-Jones. Instead, they work their asses off in what is a sternly demanding vehicle and deliver competent, satisfying performances. Lori Ellis (with her not-un-Zeta-Jones-like body) is killer/cabaret singer Velma Kelly. Erin Parker is her criminal counterpart, the spotlight-hungry, paramour-plugging Roxie Hart. Both women sing very well and do some brave bits of dancing on the narrow stage. Parker in particular is a strangely captivating presence, looking seedily vampish and appearing comfortably remorseless.
As the unctuous lawyer Billy Flynn is J. Dietz Osborne. Like his leading ladies, he offers an assured and glib performance, and he successfully pulls off two of the show’s more famous songs, “All I Care About” and the infectious (and by now almost cliché) “Razzle Dazzle.” Mark Allen is also very good as Roxie’s hubby, Amos, delivering an indisputably poignant performance of “Mister Cellophane.” Mary Bea Johnsonlooking every bit like a cast member of Women Behind Bars, the infamous stage spoof of B-moviesis prison matron Mama Morton. Beneath the gruff exterior is a very pleasant voice, used to nice effect in “When You’re Good to Mama.”
This production is also blessed with what every Fosse-inspired show must have: a chorus of scantily clad, fishnet-stockinged females, who also double here as the sextet of murderesses in the Cook County Jail. Their “Cell Block Tango” is a rouser, as lucid as it is venomous. All the dancer-actresses nobly and nimbly offer their bodies in service of the show, but two in particular stand out: Emily Z. Pettet, an adorably energetic chorine whose excellent singing can be heard above the fray; and Lauri Bright, an out-and-out trooper who also choreographed the leggy, erotic dances.
There is one major artistic misstep in this show. The part of tabloid reporter Mary Sunshine is attributed to an aging thespian named Patina O’Swett, who arrives onstage using a walker. O’Swett’s singing is certainly capable, if over the top and too precious. But far more problematic, the “actress” is the subject of a hammy gag toward show’s endone so irrelevant to the source material that it comes off as tasteless and self-indulgent, not to mention unprofessional.
If director Kempfer is willing to dispense with such in-joke amateurism, he and his company will have a pretty nice show. That’s because the band rocks out on the nightclubby score, and the actors give it their all. Hurray for Chicagothe play, that is.
Thank you for the write up. We greatly appreciate it! Hope we raise the funds…
Looks like he was a great Artist.......who left his Legacy behind for others to follow.....
Indianapolis (CA-35), not Indiana.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…