Friday, June 17, 2011


CHICAGO jazzes it up at Porthouse

In a good production, CHICAGO, the musical, sizzles with creative dancing exciting music and fun characterizations. The Porthouse Theatre production sizzles, and is creative and fun! ‘Nuf said.

In the words of my 15 year-old “kid reviewer” grandson, Alex, “That was great!” The award winning composer enthused, “The music was not only well written, but well played. The acting is right on. The singers sang meanings, not just words. The dancing was creative, and except for some unity problems in a couple of the numbers, was well done! The vocal blendings were excellent. Grandpa totally agreed with him.

CHICAGO, which is set in Prohibition era Chicago, is a satire on the Windy City’s well known police and judicial corruption. The mayhem gave birth to celebrity criminals whose fame came and went as newer and more outlandish crimes and payoffs came forth.
The musical is based on a play of the same name written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter who was assigned to cover the 1924 trials of murderesses Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.
Annan, who was acquitted of murder through a reported series of payoffs, became the model for the Roxie Hart. Velma is based on Gaertner, a cabaret singer who was also conveniently acquitted of murder. Billy Flynn, the lawyer character, is a composite of the two lawyers in the real cases.

The musical’s path to production started in the 1960s. Superstar Gwen Verdon read the play and asked her husband, the great Broadway choreographer, Bob Fosse, about creating a musical adaptation. Fosse approached playwright Watkins numerous times to buy the rights, but Watkins, who had become a born-again Christian, refused as she believed her play glamorized a scandalous way of living. Upon her death the rights were obtained and Fred Ebb began work on the musical score. Ebb and Fosse penned the book and Fosse directed and choreographed. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

The original Broadway production ran for 936 performances and starred Chita Rivera as Velma, Gwen Verdon as Roxie and Jerry Orbach as Billy. The script was revived in 1996 and holds the record for the longest-running musical revival on Broadway, now clocking over 6,000 performances. The 2002 film version, which starred Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah, won the Academy Award for best picture.

Porthouse’s production, under the direction of Terri Kent, is excellent. The show moves along at a fast pace, building on the vaudeville motif by having musical director Jonathan Swoboda serve not only as the orchestra leader, but as the narrator. It’s a clever technique which adds to the show’s whimsy.

Choregrapher Mary Ann Black’s has modified the original Fosse choreography to fit the talents of the dancers and the thrust stage venue. Though I would have liked the dancers to get lower to the ground and have more definitive hand and arm gestures, ala Fosse style, the enthusiasm and effect comes through loud and clear.

Swoboda’s band is excellent. The musical sounds don’t drown out the singing and fills the space with the right jazz beat.

Black, who not only choreographed, but plays the cute, conniving Roxie, is terrific in the role. She dances, mugs, feigns innocence and creates a delightful killer. Her solos Funny Honey and Roxie, were show highlights.

Sandra Emerick, Velma, sings, acts and dances well. Her All That Jazz lights up the stage. Her duets with Black, My Own Best Friend, Nowadays and I Know a Girl/Me and My Baby brought gales of applause.

Eric van Baars is fine as Billy. His singing and dancing are solid. He may have added to the role with a little more swagger and arrogance.

Timothy Culver, who portrays Roxie’s nebbish husband, brought down the house with Mister Cellophane.

Dylan Ratell confounds as the cross-dressing Mary Sunshine. He sings with a castrato voice that is outstanding. (Castrato is a male with a singing voice equivalent to that of soprano or mezzo-soprano.) Wow!

Melissa Owens’ Matron Mama Morton, lacks the hard edge and commanding presence needed for the role. Her When You’re Good to Mama lacked the needed power, presence and conniving tone.

Stick around for the song and dance routine after the closing lines. Black and Emerick delight.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CHICAGO, Porthouse style, sizzles and delights. It makes for a perfect summer treat. Go! See! Enjoy!