Maybe it’s just the Casey Anthony trial, but the winds of taste have shifted again. Back in 1975, the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical Chicago was all but eclipsed by the Michael Bennett-Marvin Hamlisch ground-breaker A Chorus Line, a singular sensation. Since then Chicago has been the most successful revival ever, in city after city, again and again. Yes, the score, with numbers like “All That Jazz” and “Razzle Dazzle,” has come to sound like a Broadway classic over the years. But as Cortland Repertory Theatre’s current production demonstrates, there’s something about a beautiful woman—actually two women—on trial for murder that audiences can’t resist. It turns out that they have better legs.
Then again, Chicago is also a dance show.
Bob Fosse himself co-wrote the original book, based on Maurine Dallas Watkins’ naughty 1927 play. He was thinking of a storyline that could set up cliché-shattering dance numbers. Choreographer Kevin P. Hill recreates the Fosse dazzle on the intimate Cortland Rep stage. Few shows ever seen at the 100-yearold pavilion on Little York Lake have offered so much enticement to the eyes, starting with the female chorus (i.e. inmates) in “The Cell Block Tango.” Credit also the witty prisonerstriped costumes by Jimmy Johansmeyer.
Both leading murderesses, dark-browed Velma Kelly (Rin Allen) and tow-headed Roxie Hart (Charlotte Fox), have been cast for their dancing strengths. Most supporting characters are defined by the ways they move, so that Roxie’s murder victim Fred Casely (Alexander Rivera) is always seen in motion. Thus, when we get to the two climactic numbers, “Velma Takes the Stand” and the justly titled “Razzle Dazzle,” the entire is given over to Fellini-esque expressive modern dance.
The show that veteran CRT director Bill Kincaid started with runs on two tracks. On one hand there’s the amoral story of Chicago lowlifes that playwright Watkins, a reporter for the Tribune, knew from covering the court beat. At bottom is a highly cynical equation that notoriety equals celebrity equals success. Recent events, such as Eliot Spitzer turning his scandal into a career on CNN, suggest this is not a foolhardy assertion. As with their signal hit, Cabaret, which wallowed in Weimar Republic corruption, Fred Ebb’s book and lyrics delight in the misbehavior of the Prohibition years. No one ever utters any of those seven words George Carlin talked about, but even collaborator Bob Fosse thought some lyrics excessively risqué. At one time Chicago would have been thought too rich for provincial palates. Well, no more.
On the second track Chicago is a winkwink parody of 1920s musical fashions, not all of which have complete faded. Some of these we get right away, such as the entrance for prison Matron Mama Morton (Debra Theis Evans), “When You’re Good to Mama,” an homage to the legendary Sophie Tucker. Both the men—Billy Flynn (Kerby Thompson), the “sleazy Mick lawyer,” and Amos Hart (Danny Blaylock), Roxie’s harmless cuckolded husband—borrow substantially from soft-shoe master Ted Lewis. Surface hints link Roxie to Helen Morgan and Velma to Texas Guinan, but others will put serious musical theater buffs to the test.
Although Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, another show filled with parody calling for lots of costumes, will follow in July for a three-week run, Chicago looks as though producing artistic director Kerby Thompson and the entire company have bet the bank on it. At the rise of curtain the stage is deceptively bare, except that the upper third is filled with a bandstand with seven musicians led by Eric Thomas Johnson. This prudent investment signals early on that the score, with all its wit and complex tempo changes, leads as well as supports. Some of the dance items, as well as the late-in-the-first act’s “Chicago After Midnight,” are really orchestral numbers.
Another sign of Chicago’s importance in the summer lineup is that Kerby Thompson has taken on such a big acting role for himself. Unlike other regional actor-managers, Thompson is often reluctant to cast himself, in part because of his murderous six-show slate in a 14-week schedule. When he appears, he favors going against type. That’s what happened last summer with Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, where the clean-cut WASPy Thompson turned into a tough-talk ing Italian. And his droll curtain speeches present a man from whom you might feel safe buying a used car.
So it takes a lot of Brylcreem to make him look like a sleazeball and a roguish snarl to assure us that Billy’s heart is a cash register, even when he says he only cares about love. First hired as a singer years ago, Thompson delivers plenty of style with the musical numbers, especially “Razzle Dazzle.” But he’s tops in the cast for getting the most crackle out of Ebb’s lines. Then there are those unscripted gags you can get away with when you run the house.
In a show without slow moments, nearly every number is written to be a show-stopper. Most of the time elsewhere the Roxie character gets more musical attention than Velma, but director Kincaid favors equity. Their two numbers with male chorus—Roxie’s “Me and My Baby,” with the men in bonnets and diapers, and Velma’s “When Velma Takes the Stand”—look designed to merit equal billing. Then again, Roxie gains some mileage dramatically because she’s the one whose trial must be settled before the final curtain. Director Kincaid and actress Charlotte Fox in the Roxie role see her as more of a naif, not to say airhead, as compared to Renee Zellweger in the 2002 movie version, or several other local Roxies. Fox’s ability to seemingly withdraw the bones from her body and turn Roxie into a mobile rag doll underscores the character’s helplessness before Billy Flynn’s machinations.
Danny Blaylock, a big muscular guy to be playing the wimpy husband Amos, delivers perfect mock pathos with “Mr. Cellophane.” Another performer with a massive presence, Debra Theis Evans as Mama Morton dominates the scene with her entrance, “When You’re Good to Mama,” but neglects some of the zingers in “Whatever Happened to Class?” The performer known as C. Desjardins comes up with the clearest soprano heard locally for the, um, ambiguous sob sister Mary Sunshine, and keeps her secret under wraps. Also winning in even smaller roles are Sarah VanFossen as the doomed immigrant Hunyak, arrestingly lovely and poignant, and flame-haired Katy O’Donnell as the loudmouth Go-To-Hell Kitty.
As with last summer’s Brigadoon, Cortland Repertory Theatre showed us it’s the little company that knows how to put on big shows. With Chicago, it reaches an edginess and gloss not seen in the company before. And it razzle dazzles, too.
This production runs through July 9. See Times Table for information.