A Review

Sequins & Mischievous Mayhem

By R. J. Donovan

Forty-five seasons young, Reagle Music Theatre is back for another summer. Their three show summer season is kicking off with Kander & Ebb's musical of murder and mayhem, "Chicago."

While most people are familiar with "Chicago" via the Oscar-winning 2002 motion picture, the sharp-edged show first came to the footlights in 1975. Director - choreographer Bob Fosse put his unique touch and style to the story of two merry murderesses vying for fame and fortune in the three ring circus of 1920's Chicago.

With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and a book by Ebb and Fosse, the show is actually based on true stories and actual criminals featured in a 1926 play by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. Several of Kander and Ebb's glistening numbers have become standards including "All That Jazz," "Razzle Dazzle" and "All I Care About Is Love."

In the story, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly have both murdered lovers, separately, of course. Tossed in the slammer, they each hire the same flashy attorney, Billy Flynn, who promises to get them off. They long to make the front pages with splashy stories about their lives and their trials. Once free, they'll be primed to hit the vaudeville circuit and capitalize on their notoriety. This was life in the Roaring 20s.

Originally starring Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, the show had intriguing staging (for the time) that found the musicians placed in a band box sitting high above the playing area. Below the bandstand, doors opened to allow for entrances and exits of both the actors and set pieces. The official title of the show was "Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville," and the musical numbers and staging reflected the vaudeville style both in introduction and presentation.

While the show was a gem and ran for two years (I saw it from the front row of the Mezzanine of the 46th Street Theatre), it never got all the respect it rightly deserved because it opened on the heels of "A Chorus Line," which scooped all the buzz and awards. (Verdon was married to Fosse at the time, and he reportedly took on the show to create a star showpiece for her.)

The show came back in 1996 when it received a concert staging as part of the Encores series at City Center in New York. While the original production featured full costumes and sets and a more traditional (although Fosse-esque) staging, at Encores, that was dropped for a more minimalist look. The Fosse choreography, of course, was recreated with all its pelvic thrusts and hip swivels. This short engagement was so enthusiastically embraced that the show transferred to Broadway, where it's been playing ever since.

The Broadway producers have cleverly kept the show pumped by constantly recasting the leads to keep audiences coming back. Everyone from Brooke Shields to Billy Ray Cyrus have been showcased. While many of these folks are hardly musical theatre pros, they give producers a way of constantly drawing attention -- and more dollars -- to the show. (This is the celebrity driven same way the same producers kept their revival of "Grease" running several years ago.)

This final version of the staging has become the norm, featuring the musicians in a large bandstand on stage level with the company all attired in black. The principal characters wear what amounts to formal wear -- the ladies in short, sexy cocktail dresses and Flynn in a tux. The ensemble wears revealing form-fitting outfits, again in black, that show a lot of skin and well-toned muscle. (The two white sequined looks for the leading ladies are a result of the movie's influence.)

Subsequent regional productions tend to offer a version of the concert style staging, which is what Reagle has done. Director Gerry McIntyre, who appeared in the revival on Broadway (including playing the Flynn role), has recreated the Fosse choreography. As in all Fosse efforts, the show is satirical, sexy and dark. The judicial system is skewered as is the newspaper business and the vapid world of celebrity. (Special mention goes to David Wilson for a lighting design that gives the show its dramatic, dazzling look.)

At Reagle, Angie Schworer plays Roxie (top, photo) and Sara Gettelfinger plays Velma. The premise of the evening is neatly rolled out in the opening number "All That Jazz" (sung by Gettelfinger, above), which both details Roxie shooting her lover and establishes the decadent debauchery of the prohibition-era lifestyle. While Schworer was a little hard to warm up to at the start, she soon became the one to watch, whether dancing with her "boys" or working hard to dupe the judge and jurors of her innocence in court.

Prison matron-on-the-take Mamma Morton is played by Maryann Zschau, who does a nice job with the comical number "Class," a duet delivered with Gettelfinger (who Boston audiences will remember as Morticia in "The Addams Family" last year at The Shubert). As Amos, Rick Sherburne is Roxie's slob of a husband who initially takes the rap for the murder Roxie commits. It's unfortunate that the power of the band tends to drown him out in "Funny Honey," because his dialogue is crucial to setting up the plot.

P. Mill has fun with the role of Mary Sunshine, the bleeding heart news reporter who's loyalty has the staying power of a gnat. Shining throughout the night is Rick Pessagno as Billy Flynn (above). He's both polished and appropriately superficial as the manipulating Flynn, singing great and scoring in both "Razzle Dazzle" and "We Both Reached For The Gun," which he brings to a heady climax.

In the end, it's another fun evening at Reagle.

"Chicago," at Reagle Music Theatre, 617 Lexington Street in Waltham, through June 23. Call 781-891-5600.

-- Production Photos: Herb Philpot

-- OnStage Boston




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