Musical murderesses in Chicago make for killer theater

At the Denver Center Theatre Company's New Play Summit last month, a couple of critics from larger cities were talking about our area's theatrical offerings. On a Colorado visit some years back, they'd gone to Boulder's Dinner Theatre — and the show was very good, one of them said with some surprise. Serious critics aren't supposed to enjoy dinner theater, and this man hastily added that they'd had a few drinks that night.

But the BDT has a level of energy and skill that's genuinely surprising. It stems in large part from the company's long history, the fact that so many of the performers — talented to begin with — have worked together for years, in some cases a decade or more. Joannie Brosseau-Beyette and Alicia Dunfee starred together in Chicago seven years ago, and they star again in the current revival. Although they've completely relaxed into their roles, they also bring a crisp precision to every note and move. These aren't the over-practiced performances of hoofers who've been running a show through innumerable evenings and matinees, however; these two women are having a ball. Their familiarity with the material, with each other and with the other actors allows for playfulness and exuberance you'd never get elsewhere. A.K. Klimpke also reprises the role of reptilian lawyer Billy Flynn, Wayne Kennedy re-creates the sad-sack Amos, and the chorus features a horde of familiar faces. Then there's Reynelda Snell, bringing a whole new energy and interpretation — not to mention a rich, strong voice — to the key role of prison matron "Mama" Morton.

Sort of Brechtian, sort of Cabaret-ish, Chicago tells a story of injustice and corruption, and tells it in the most seductive way: with witty, memorable songs, elegantly glistening dance sequences, and a smart, cynical and grown-up script. Roxie Hart (Brosseau-Beyette) is an evil, self-serving little hoofer. Having murdered a man who tried to walk away from her, she cons sweet, dopey husband Amos into coming up with money and enlists the services of Flynn. Under Flynn's tutelage, Roxie realizes that she can not only escape the hangman (the show is set in the 1920s), but finally, given the public's fascination with murderesses, become a big star. Just one problem: Velma Kelly, played by Dunfee, is the current hot murderess, and she has no intention of giving up her spot. Style and performance are everything in this decadent world, and aside from Amos, the only innocent here is Hunyak (a sweet-faced Jessica Hindsley), a Hungarian woman falsely accused of murder and unable to speak a word of English. Her innocence, along with her belief in the fairness of the American justice system, proves lethal.

The orchestra is note-perfect, Alicia Dunfee's Bob Fosse-influenced choreography thrums with energy, the songs run the gamut from the heart-bumping "All That Jazz" to Amos's touching "Mr. Cellophane," and the ranks offer all kinds of demented bits of improvisation. In fact, there's so much sheer exuberance on the stage that you find yourself sorry when the evening ends.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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