I’d promised myself I wouldn’t use words like “inspirational” or “life-affirming” to describe the production of Chicago by Phamaly, a company made up entirely of performers with disabilities. These performers are genuine artists who create professional — often better-than-professional — work, and no shift in standards is required for their shows. As I expected, under the direction of Regan Linton, who’s wheelchair-bound herself, the group came up with a stunning and brilliantly vital production — well staged, well choreographed, well acted and sung, and supported by Donna Debreceni’s wondrously passionate keyboard playing and musical direction.
But on the way to the theater, my friend had been telling me about the massacre of nine people in Dayton, Ohio, when I was still digesting the murder of twenty and the wounding of perhaps two dozen others in El Paso. I was still shaken when we walked into the Studio Loft, a large room atop the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. It was cunningly set up with seats on risers, some audience members at small round tables, others seated around an oval thrust that protruded into the audience. There was a buzz in the room that had nothing to do with the upcoming performance. But then Debreceni and her musicians began playing the overture, and pretty soon Erin Schneider, who plays Velma, was singing “All That Jazz.” A warm, funny, audience-embracing evening began unfolding, and I could feel things starting to shift in my mind, though it wasn’t until later that my scattered thoughts could organize themselves into something like coherence.
Chicago, by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, is a terrific musical, highly entertaining but with a Brechtian undertow of darkness and cynicism. Margaret Atwood once mused on the word “murderess”: “It has a smell to it, that word — musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase.” Chicago, which is set in the 1920s, takes place in a prison occupied entirely by murderesses, almost all of them cheerfully manipulative and entirely unrepentant. The exception is a sweet, gentle Hungarian, Hunyak (touchingly played by Maggie Whittum), who’s been condemned for an ax murder she swears she didn’t commit, and who pays with her life for her innocent belief in American justice.
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We meet Velma, whose murder made her profitably famous, queening her way around until pretty blonde Roxie (Megan McGuire), who shot her boyfriend because he was a jerk and she was tired of him, sashays in and threatens to replace her as the star attraction. Yes, the boyfriend was just a touch abusive, but there’s no reason to sympathize with his nasty little killer. Instead, sympathies rightly lie with her sad husband, Amos (Robert Michael Sanders), who keeps right on loving Roxie no matter what she does. The prison matron (a splendid Laurice Quinn) is always open — in so many ways — to those of her charges who want to curry favor, and then there’s Billy Flynn, the dishonest showman of a defense attorney, who’ll be happy to get Roxie off — and help her steal Velma’s fame — for only a few thousand dollars.
The songs are wonderful, with clever lyrics and toe-tapping rhythms, and the cast is top-notch. Schneider’s dark-haired and sophisticated Velma displays a fine singing voice, and you can’t resist McGuire’s minxy little grin as Roxie. As Billy Flynn, Leonard Barrett displays a fast-flashing variety of voices and expressions, sometimes reminiscent of Jim Carrey, sometimes of Robin Williams, and his singing is fabulous. Sanders offers a moving rendition of Amos’s ode to his own invisibility, “Mr. Cellophane,” an ode I’m guessing that many members of this company understand to their bones.
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Watching Chicago somehow changed the texture of the cloud of sadness, fear and anger I’d carried with me into the theater. I was seeing people who struggle with all kinds of difficulties — for some just the challenge of getting out of bed is huge; others live with constant pain and insecurity — showing the world the power, grace, complexity and strength that their disabilities cannot take from them. It turns out you can dance with no feet or when your legs don’t reliably obey your mind. And you can get an audience laughing — warm, unpitying and full-throated — by drawing comic attention to the fact that you have no left forearm.
There’s a perceptible level of caring and support among the cast. The script may call for a lot of catfights — and believe me, the cast delivers them — but the sense of mutual support and understanding is palpable. Now and then you’ll see an actor subtly supporting another who’s having difficulty walking. Or catch Barrett, who’s capable of a knockout star turn on his own, standing back to let other performers take over as he watches them with a wide smile of unaffected pleasure.
This performance of Chicago is a testament to the power of art and also the human spirit. I’ve always tried to believe that love conquers hate and light overcomes darkness, and I never quite can. But putting goodness out into this shadowed world can tilt the great scale a fragment toward decency and justice — and Phamaly is tilting in style.
Chicago, presented by Phamaly through August 25, Studio Loft at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-365-0005, phamaly.org.