Chicago is a dark musical that scorns the very idea of redemption. The characters' venality reflects the corrupt society that spawned them. The only innocent is a desperate, non-English-speaking Hungarian woman, who is ultimately hanged for her faith in American justice. Although the milieu is completely different -- Chicago is set in a world of 1920s nightclubs -- the tone is a little reminiscent of Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera. Chicago writers Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse (who also developed the choreography) have employed some of Brecht's distancing mechanisms, too: reminders of the theatricality of what we're watching, an insistence that we, the audience, stand outside the action rather than identify with the characters.
There's a lot to like about Chicago: brilliant songs by Ebb and John Kander, a witty script and a grown-up worldview. Boulder's Dinner Theatre gives the show a vivid, energetic production.
The evening begins with a sexy, hip-thrusting rendition of "All That Jazz" -- one of those songs that's so hot it would provide the climax rather than the opening of any less-self-assured musical. A hard-eyed blonde, Roxie Hart (Joanie Brosseau-Beyette), strides on stage and guns down the lover who's trying to leave her, an act for which she feels not a second's remorse. Next, we're confronted by a stage full of murderesses doing the "Cell Block Tango." Foremost among them is Alicia Dunfee as Velma Kelly. Kelly killed her husband and her sister in a fit of jealous rage she claims she doesn't remember. Dunfee is riveting, but all these women are so interesting that I found myself wishing every one of them had her own number.
Roxie cons her devoted husband, Amos, into coming up with $5,000 to secure the services of lizard-like lawyer Billy Flynn. Pretty soon, Flynn has concocted a story in which poor trembling Roxie killed her lover after being stalked and terrorized by him -- and only when "We Both Reached for the Gun." The latter is another unbelievably clever song, during which Roxie becomes a dummy on the lap of ventriloquist Flynn.
The press, every bit as supine as it is today, eats up every word of the manufactured story. If Roxie can beat her murder rap, she'll be a star -- an ambition that's eluded her for her entire second-rate life. Unfortunately, Velma is the reigning murderess-chanteuse, and she has no intention of relinquishing her spot.
The Boulder production is patterned after the Broadway version, from the minimal set -- two ladders at the sides of the stage, the orchestra on platforms in the center -- through the provocative black costumes to the staging of the dance numbers. Alicia Dunfee is credited with creating choreography "in the style of" the legendary Fosse. Most of her performers don't have the dance skills of their Broadway counterparts, but Dunfee makes them look good. The overall style, elegant and slick, becomes an enameled surface that repels emotion but provides intense aesthetic pleasure.
Chicago is short on dialogue and long on songs. This is good, because Boulder's Dinner Theatre boasts a lot of strong voices. Dunfee is an excellent singer, with a lot of stage presence and a mesmerizing way of moving. Many performers might be intimidated at having to take the stage alongside her, but Brosseau-Beyette has no problem. She, too, is blessed with a powerful, flexible voice and a lively way of putting across a number. To her credit, she never sentimentalizes Roxie, but plays her as a hard, self-centered little bitch throughout. A. K. Klimpke is known for hilarious, over-the-top performances, but his Billy Flynn is far more low-key and controlled -- a choice that, paradoxically, makes his scenes funnier. Statuesque, long-legged Zina Mercil is perfect as the Hungarian prisoner; she somehow manages to look both gawky and glamorous. But Mercil provides one of the evening's few moments of pathos, and I wish she had played it in a quieter, more naturalistic way. As it was, the audience seemed unsure whether her protestations of innocence were supposed to be tragic or amusing. Wayne Kennedy is also human and vulnerable as Amos. While his wife, Roxie, effortlessly manipulates the world into granting her fame, Amos feels so invisible that he almost doubts his own existence. During his moving ballad, "Mister Cellophane," he approaches members of the audience to ask if they see him. They don't respond, of course, and that seems to make all of us complicit in the dehumanizing world of the play. Bren Eyestone Burron delivers the prison matron's songs with a cold-eyed calculation worthy of Lotte Lenya. When she and Velma sing a profane duet about the world's lack of "Class," however, it's strangely moving. I think this is partly because of the melody, and also the characters' relationship -- Velma has a longtime dependence on fix-it "Mama" Morton. But I think we also sense a certain warmth and camaraderie between these two longtime BDT actresses.
There's lots of strength in the smaller roles. Scott Beyette has some hilarious moments playing an entire jury; he's electrified with lust when Roxie stumbles "accidentally" onto his lap. Shelly Cox-Robie makes you wish that her tiny part as Go-to-Hell Kitty were much, much larger. I've seen B. Hamlette in a few shows now, and always wondered when the dinner theater would reward this intense performer with a more pivotal role. Now it has. Mary Sunshine is a scene-stealer and a hoot -- and, oh, that voice!
So there you have it. Sophisticated book, great music, exciting performers. This is about as good as dinner theater gets.
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