PBT's "Chicago": A Show with Legs

The Cast of "Chicago"
(photo: Priscilla Beach Theatre)

There may be a newly-installed air-conditioning system at Priscilla Beach Theatre, but the buzz word for the company's second production in its newly renovated barn is “hot”, as in the heat generated by the wildly popular musical, “Chicago”. It's the quintessential dancing show that has really proven to have legs. It's hard to believe that it premiered on Broadway forty years ago. This has proven to be a shrewd choice on the part of PBT's producers, Bob and Sandy Malone, given the obvious contrast with their season opener, “Fiddler on the Roof” with its deep-rooted sense of community, family and heart; “Chicago” has Hart (as in Roxie) but little heart. This show, from the first line to the last bump and grind, has always been not about sentiment but about sex, a guilty pleasure for the ages (if not exactly appropriate for all ages). This production proves beyond a doubt that PBT can do just about anything and do it well in the tradition of the versatility of the fondly remembered summer stock of yore. It's brash and bold, which should come as no surprise to theatergoers familiar with the music of John Kander and the lyrics by the late Fred Ebb (with book, such as it is, by Ebb and Bob Fosse), whose bravely cynical output runs the gamut from “Cabaret” to “Scottsboro Boys” to the most recent production of their work this past season, “The Visit” (astoundingly, starring Chita Rivera, the first interpreter of “Chicago's” co-starring role of Velma Kelly).

The story was first seen in 1926 as a dramatization by Chicago Tribune scribe Maureen Dallas Watkins, who based it on the real-life murder suspects she had reported on during the Prohibition Era. Cecil B. DeMille directed a silent film version a year later. The first musical production of the story was suggested to Bob Fosse by his wife Gwen Verdon, who went on to originate the role of Roxie Hart in 1975. Initially unappreciated by many critics, it grew in popularity when a throat operation caused Verdon to miss a month of performances, filled in by a certain youngster named Liza Minelli. Though Liza wasn't known as a dancer, she and Rivera were stunning together, and Minelli's presence in the show brought national attention, helping it to reach over 900 performances. It began to be more appreciated, reflected in the Tony Awards that season. It earned ten Tony nominations, though it won none. (Unfortunately for poor “Chicago”, It was the year of “A Chorus Line”, coincidentally next season's opener for PBT). What is extraordinary about the work is that its subsequent revival in 1996 has been running for twenty years becoming the second-longest revival in Broadway history, despite its having been filmed in 2002 and having been awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. The obvious query is, how did an undeniably salacious and cynical story about celebrity murderesses (long before the internet) reach such a popular peak? How has this show had such legs?

A great part of its success lies in the score, since, one would have to admit, it really doesn't have a very strong book. The songs range from the familiar “All That Jazz” to “Razzle Dazzle” to “Mr. Cellophane” to “Class” (the last a hysterical number cut from the movie, but included as an extra on the DVD, and thankfully included in this PBT version). The songs were wisely (even shrewdly) created as vaudeville numbers, with specific vaudeville performing types in mind. Thus a good deal of its impact depends on the quality of the singing and dancing actors in a given production. PBT has assembled quite a talented crew in their own right. The two leading villainesses, Katy Corbus (as Velma, exhibiting impressive dance moves) and Andrea Sweeney (as Roxie, with an equally impressive singing voice) set the perfect tone, balancing the surface sex with an underlying hint of sweetness. The score, true to its vaudevillian intent, gives a chance for memorable solos to several cast members, including lawyer Billy Flynn (Matt Torrance), prison matron Mama Morton (Maggie Irvine), Roxie's husband Amos (Steve Dooner) and newspaper reporter Mary Sunshine (J. Angel Valentin). Part of the fun for loyal PBT theatergoers is the enjoyment in seeing former “Fiddler” players create vastly different characters, from Fred Casely (Sam Patch) to June (Caitlin Donohue) to Liz (Maya Jacobson), as well as members of the ensemble (Bryan George Rowell, Jeremiah O'Sullivan, and Ben Gibson), joined by PBT newcomers Rob Russ and Ritchard Wingert. Add other PBT novices in the roles of Go-to-Hell Kitty (Erica Morris), Annie (Kate Ryan), Mona (Kaylene Snarsky), and Hunyak (Eilis Quinn) and you have a formidable troupe indeed. As expertly Directed and meticulously Choreographed (in the style of Fosse) by Michael Hammond, this production is a revelation. Also worthy are the contributions of Musical Director Christopher Ricci (once again wonderfully leading the band christened “The Barn Doors”), the Costume Design by Richard Danehy, the Lighting Design by Kasey Sheehan and the Spotlight Operation by Grace VanBuskirk (so vital to the impact of this work in its headlining and highlighting).

This was a show with quite a few standout moments, from Valentin's bravura falsetto, with live pooch Milo (who will only be in the first few performances, in the uncredited role of Milo) in hand, to Wingert's extraordinary curtain call. But it's in the precision of the dancing and the dazzle in the razzle of the singing that will endure in memory. In case you missed getting tickets to this sold-out show, be advised that summer theater has just matured while you weren't looking, and may never be the same again, for which we may all be thankful. The choice to mount this grown-up show was both courageous and canny, attesting to the fact that PBT is our kind of company, and “Chicago” is surely our kind of town.

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