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‘Chicago’ Doesn’t Quite Hit Right Note

August 1, 2008

By The Fresno Bee, Calif.

Jul. 31–Call me a purist, but I think that the musical “Chicago” should be more sexy than funny. Sure, there are lots of frivolous and laugh-out-loud moments in the oft-performed John Kander/Fred Ebb/Bob Fosse stage version, which got a big boost from the Oscar-winning 2002 movie. But the laughter should be sharp and cutting. This is a show about skin, sex, corruption, gyrating bodies, tight costumes and — not to forget — murder, along with the whole theme of glorifying empty celebrity. Goofy and slapstick don’t fit nearly so well on that list.

Consider the second-act courtroom scene, a near-train-wreck moment, on opening night of the Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.

Steve Souza, playing all the members of the jury as is customary, hopped from chair to chair just as you’d expect. As he created different characterizations, he pretended to pick his nose, chat on the phone, use binoculars, drink out of a flask, etc.

All this takes place as Roxie Hart (played by Julie Lucido), on the witness stand for murdering her lover, is undergoing friendly examination by her superstar attorney, Billy Flynn (Peter Allwine). The trick is to make the multiple-jury-member gag wryly amusing without disrupting the flow of the action.

As staged by Scott Hancock, however, the scene bogs down.

Souza, front and center, hams it up far too much — so much that the forward momentum of the scene just kind of fizzles. This is, after all, about a woman on trial for her life. As stylized and self-aware as the script for “Chicago” is, you have to remain true to the story. Otherwise, the show is nothing more than a collection of high leg kicks, snarky banter and torchy songs.

I’m not saying that this “Chicago” is devoid of sex appeal. This show is feistier than most Roger Rocka’s fare. The ensemble in the show does a pretty good job slinking around on stage, and Kaye Migaki’s choreography alludes to Bob Fosse’s crisp style. From the moment that the emcee, played by Michael J. Willett (and his belly button), saunters onstage to deliver the show’s prologue, it’s obvious that the cast is revving up for a sultry evening.

There are some strong moments in this “Chicago,” including a nice rapport between the leading ladies of the show. In some productions of “Chicago” I’ve seen, it’s almost hard to tell Velma Kelly (Kat Dorian), the reigning murderess of the Cook County Jail, apart from Roxie, the new flavor of the month. But in the hands of these two Good Company veterans, you get a real sense of who these women are. Lucido, cheery and blowsy, excels both in her harsh and tender moments, and Dorian has a nice, brassy connection with her character.

Anthony Taylor is an amiable Amos, the “cellophane man,” with a powerful voice and a suitably mopey demeanor. Ashley Taylor has a strong, shrill presence as Mary Sunshine. And Allwine’s Billy Flynn, while perhaps not offering the most cutthroat or smarmy interpretation of the role, puts on a charismatic show, particularly in the number “Razzle Dazzle.” (Even a potential Janet-Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction in “All I Care About” didn’t detract from Allwine’s performance.)

Still, there are aspects of the show that felt particularly rough on opening night. Jerrica Edmundson struggled at times as Mama, the all-powerful matron of the jail. She never really connected with the rousing and effusive nature of the role. The “Cell Block Tango” number didn’t crackle with the intensity that you’d expect. (Andrea Henrickson’s lighting in the song, which I’m assuming is purposefully murky, didn’t showcase it to the best dramatic effect.)

Roxie’s startling first-act revelation just sort of came with a thud. The moment when we learn the fate of the Hungarian inmate (Lorraine Christiansen) prompted a laugh from the audience rather than the expected somber moment.

And while I’ve been recently impressed with the recorded accompaniment to Good Company’s shows, this production suffers from a meek, heavily synthesized-sounding arrangement that sets a mild and nonjazzy tone for the show.

Hancock tries to highlight the Brechtian nature of the show by kicking off both acts with a backstage voice “calling” the actors to their places. But it comes across as too insider.

Migaki does a fine job making the small stage seem bigger than it is, and some of the moves of the ensemble do have a genuine sexy flair. At other times, such as in the number “Roxie,” the sultry nature of the dancing got mucked up by silly hand movements.

Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes are a little odd, right on the line between eclectic and hodgepodge, and while I understand what Hancock was trying to do with the “Cabaret”-meets-Europe-and-circus-meets-punked-out-Disney feel of the lineup of garments in “Razzle Dazzle,” I’m not sure it works.

In all, this “Chicago” makes a strenuous and often enjoyable effort, but it does have some significant weaknesses. I’m assuming that as the run progresses, it will become a little more comfortable with itself.

There’s still a lot of jazz to enjoy, but it’s not quite “All” there yet.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Fresno Bee, Calif.

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