As we are told at the very start of “Chicago,” Kander and Ebb’s extraordinarily successful 1975 musical set during the raucous Prohibition era in this city, the story we are about to watch is one of “murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery — all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts.”
When: Through June 18
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Tickets: $45 – $60
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
To complete that tabloid-esque list evoking Roaring Twenties “values” here, you easily could add “the hunger for celebrity” and “the triumph of cynicism.” And from that point in this musical (inspired by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins’ 1926 play, and adapted by Ebb and Chicago-bred director-choreographer Bob Fosse), you might well find yourself thinking: Oh yes, a timeless Chicago tale. And so it is, just as the Berlin of “Cabaret,” that other Kander and Ebb classic, bears a chilling resemblance to certain aspects of contemporary Europe.
But to cut to the chase: The revival of “Chicago” now at Drury Lane Theatre is sensational. And with director William Osetek, choreographer Jane Lanier, music director Roberta Duchak, a small but formidable orchestra led by Chris Sargent and a volcanic cast all putting their distinctive stamps on the show (whose 1996 Broadway revival now holds the distinction of being the longest-running American musical in Broadway history), this tawdry, tragicomic tale has lost none of its allure.
The story spins around the fierce competition for the media spotlight and show biz career prospects between two women accused of murder —Velma Kelly (Alena Watters), a vaudeville performer who shot both her husband and sister when she discovered them in bed together, and who has become a hot headline in the papers; and the new girl behind bars, Roxie Hart (Kelly Felthous), a struggling chorus girl with a gift for survival who shot her lover after he announced he was leaving her, and whose meek, devoted husband, Amos (Justin Brill), initially tries to take the rap for the crime.
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Both leading actresses here are from New York, and while I generally complain about “imported” talent, this is a show heavily dependent on triple-threat talents with the kind of bravura dance skills difficult to find here. In addition to everything else, the leggy Watters and fleet Felthous can truly dance up a storm. And Lanier’s choreography — which draws on the Fosse original, but also breaks free of its constraints with plenty of sexy panache of its own — is irresistible.
Locked up in the women’s block at Cook County Jail, the two women encounter Mama Morton, the Matron-on-the-take who, for a price, can arrange take-out meals or serve as a talent agent for her prisoners, and Chicago’s inimitable E. Faye Butler brings the house down with her rousing portrayal, and her shrewdly comic rendering of “When You’re Good to Mama.”
Velma and Roxie also find themselves competing for the services of the high-profile, unapologetically profit-driven lawyer, Billy Flynn (an ideally slick Guy Lockhard), a master manipulator of the media who keeps one particular columnist, Mary Sunshine (J. London, whose clarion voice comes with a bit of a secret) in his pocket by treating her to scoops. Flynn also is not above sanctioning perjury, as revealed in the knockout ventriloquism number (“Me and My Baby,” brilliantly performed by Felthous and Lockard), in which he bluntly tutors Roxie in constructing her testimony.
No Broadway team has parlayed decadence and corruption with more knowingly wicked, playfully complicit style than Kander and Ebb as evidenced by such songs as “All That Jazz,” the self-mocking “All I Care About is Love,” and “Class” (the hilarious commentary on the lack of it, as bemoaned by Velma and Mama Morton). In one fabulous ensemble number, “Cell Block Tango,”a group of female prisoners (Lauren Nicole Blane, Michael Samarie George, Jessica Blair, Erica Evans) explain how they came to shoot the men in their lives, with Allyson Graves as Hunyak, the Hungarian girl who continually proclaims she is “not guilty.” When it comes time for a bit of pathos there is Amos’ “Mister Cellophane,” with Brill ideal in that poignant confession of what it’s like to be invisible. And throughout, the ensemble of male dancers skillfully animates many scenes.
Kevin Depinet’s set (lit by Lee Fiskness) is a muscular, industrial strength assemblage of movable pieces — from a vaudeville-like red velvet curtain, to prison bars on wheels, to a balcony perched above the stage from where Michael Accardo presides as host, city editor and judge. And Sully Ratke’s costumes are just sexy enough to suggest something between the brothel and the Follies — a perfect mix-and-match description of the way things often work in Chicago.