Stage Door Review

Chicago

Sunday, June 12, 2022

✭✭✭✭

music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Fred Ebb & Bob Fosse, directed by Donna Feore

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

June 3-October 30, 2022

Mama Morton: “In this town, murder is a form of entertainment”

If you go to the Stratford Festival for its razzle-dazzle, then head straight for the musical Chicago. I am old enough to have seen the original production of the show on Broadway in 1977, which I found boring and not at all up to the level of its creators’ best work, Cabaret (1966). I also saw a touring production in Toronto based on the 1996 Broadway revival, which was a conceptual improvement but poorly sung. Stratford’s production is the first time in 30 year that a company outside London or New York has been granted new production rights. Under Donna Feore’s direction the musical takes on a vitality and clarity it never had in either the original production nor in the still-running Broadway revival.

The musical is based on a 1926 play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who as a journalist wrote news stories about accused female criminals in court and in prison. Watkins’s play is a fictionalized version of two of the cases she covered. In the early 1960s when Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon came knocking to buy the rights to the play, Watkins was unhappy about the play feeling that it glamourized the two female criminals. This is still a question one could ask about the musical, though John Kander and Fred Ebb’s treatment is so satirical and the scenes are so formally distanced that audiences will hardly identify with or even care about any of the main characters. Kander and Ebb insure that we are interested in the characters only as performers, not people.

In this way Chicago is the logical extension of Cabaret. In Cabaret, musical numbers inside the cabaret mirrored events that occurred outside of it. In Chicago, on the other hand, the entire show is conceived of as a series of cabaret or vaudeville acts and there are no scenes that take place outside this world of theatre. In a technique borrowed from Bertolt Brecht the title of each scene is announced and its contents described. We thus are seated in a cabaret from beginning to end and see everything on stage through the distorting mirror of entertainment.

The 1996 revival headed towards this notion of theatre-that-says-it-is-theatre through a set design that placed the band on stage in what looked like a jury box, around which the actors played their scenes. While the onstage band always reminded the audience they were seeing a musical, it didn’t necessarily evoke a vaudeville theatre and its presence inhibited free-flowing movement.

The problems vanish in the new Stratford production. Musicals at the Festival Theatre have always placed the band at ceiling level behind the roof of the stage balcony. This leaves the enlarged Festival stage completely free of impediment with entrances downstage into the voms and upstage to the sides or directly to the back. Set designer Michael Gianfrancesco puts bars across the middle upstage opening, but otherwise the entire stage is free for action. Indeed, Gianfrancesco’s simple device highlights the musical’s contrast between the themes of freedom and imprisonment.

Director and choreographer Donna Feore tells us from the very beginning that we have just entered a 1920s vaudeville theatre when she has Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Velma lowered in a glittering chorus girl outfit from the ceiling onto the stage to sing the show’s opening number “All That Jazz”. In the second most theatrical entrance, Dan Chameroy as Billy Flynn rises from the centre trap door. Along the way we have numbers inspired by fan dancing, tap, ventriloquism, opera, clown and circus.

This collection of vaudeville numbers loosely tells a story. Chorus girl Roxie Hart (Chelsea Preston) murders her lover Fred (Chad McFadden) when he attempts to break off their affair. Roxie manages to convince her too-credible husband Amos (Steve Ross) that the man she shot was a burglar. But when Amos hears the name, he knows Roxie’s lying and she is sent to the women’s block at Chicago’s Cook County Jail.

There she comes into conflict with the presiding queen of the cellblock, murderess Velma Kelly, who is unhappy that Roxie is obscuring her fame and stealing her corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn. Both Velma and Roxie hope to parlay their notoriety into celebrity. The two experience a harsh reality when Cook County actually executes a woman for the first time in 47 years. Flynn gets both clients acquitted but their fame has evaporated and Flynn leaves them for the latest cause célèbre.

In Act 1, the women’s cellblock matron Mama  Morton notes, “In this town, murder is a form of entertainment”, a statement that sums up both the nature of the structure of the musical and its central theme. The show is unrelievedly cynical with not one character to care about except perhaps the poor schmuck Amos.

What drives the musical, especially in this production, is Feore’s dazzling choreography and the white hot performances from the entire cast. Prime among these is Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Velma Kelly. Rider-Shaw has been good in every show she has been in at Stratford, but has been cast primarily as young innocents – Janet in The Rocky Horror Show (2018), Josephine in HMS Pinafore (2017) and Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street (2012). As Velma, Rider-Shaw is an eye-opener. We see that she is just as adept at playing a jealous, manipulative murderess as an ingenue. And the role lets Rider-Shaw show us what a top-notch dancer she is as well as singer.

As Velma’s competitor Roxie Hart, Chelsea Preston (they/she) doesn’t come across with the same intensity as Rider-Shaw, Preston carefully delineates Roxie’s learning curve from unprincipled killer to and incautious speaker to wised-up woman who knows how to control the system. They are also a fine singer, but (and this may be a technical issue) their lower notes tend not to be heard over the band whereas their higher notes are always clear and ringing. They are also a fine dancer which is proven in “Hot Honey’s Rag”, the duet for Velma and Roxie in which the two perfectly mirror each other’s footsteps.

By now audiences have concluded that Dan Chameroy can really do anything. He has won hearts over as the dad in Billy Elliot (2019) and outraged sensibilities as Dr. Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show (2018). It turns out that he is also the ideal Billy Flynn. Suspect suavity and an ironic tone come naturally to him. I can’t think of anyone who could better sing the show’s big number “Razzle Dazzle” with just the perfect combination of ease and sleaze. His performance is a constant pleasure.

The Festival has also found just the right person to play Matron Mama Morton. Sandra Caldwell may be making her Stratford début but her performance is unforgettable. She gives bribe-taking Morton a sardonic, worldly-wise attitude that sums up the entire mood of the show. Caldwell makes us feel that Morton really does care for the women in her care but her principles will only allow her to do favours for the right price. I had never previously thought of her number “When You’re Good To Mama” as a showstopper, when Caldwell sings it with her rich, powerful voice and dramatic finish it does stop the show with a torrent of applause from an audience bowled over by Caldwell’s punch and panache. Caldwell is also just the right emphasis and timing to make “Class”, her duet with Velma, a real hoot.

Chicago also features someone with the very opposite of panache, Roxie Hart’s schlemiel of a husband Amos. In a world full of cynicism, Amos provides a bit of relief as someone who really loves his wife, terrible as she is. Steve Ross expertly judges how to play this role. He gives Amos a strong Midwestern accent which always hits the Ontarian ear as unsophisticated, and the more serious and sincere Ross makes Amos the funnier the poor guy is. He sings his great number “Mister Cellophane” not out of self-pity but just as a matter of fact. Feore even makes Ross do his own lighting cues as if even the theatre has given up on him. By the end of the song Ross has won us over completely.

The “sob sister” journalist Mary Sunshine is played by someone listed only as “R. Markus” in the programme. Those who have only seen the 2002 film of Chicago may be surprised, but not anyone who has seen the show on stage before. Therefore [Spoiler Alert: to avoid reveal, skip to next paragraph] I will reveal that “R. Markus” is none other than Robert Markus, who played the title role in Dear Evan Hansen for Mirvish in 2019. No one who saw that show could possibly imagine that Markus is also a countertenor but so he is. He tosses out trills and roulades in classic operatic style in Mary’s “A Little Bit Of Good” with such ease that that it’s still very difficult to believe that Mary is sung by the same Robert Markus one has seen so often before. Markus has such a highly developed falsetto that if he chose to become a classical countertenor, he could.

Among other cast members Chad McFadden deserves mention. I have always noted him in the chorus because his dancing combines that ideal of carefreeness and precision. It was great to see him play a named character for a change, Fred Casely, whom Roxie murders, and even get some lines. Not many actors could make a character’s death by gunshot look painful and graceful at once.

Bonnie Jordan also must be mentioned who plays the Hungarian immigrant Hunyak, who maintains her innocence right up to the end. To portray her death by hanging Feore has had the brilliant idea of using aerial silks. The death designed by aerialist Nicole Smith has Jordan climb the silks and perform a drop to a hip lock so that she is hanging by her waist not her neck, but we get the idea and the beauty and tastefulness of Jordan’s performance compensates for the horror of what the drop symbolizes.

As usual Feore’s choreography is noticeably more athletic for the men than the women. She gives the men lots of split jumps, leaps and barrel rolls, but for women focusses more on footwork, pliability and holding position while they areflung about by the men. In Chicago, Feore’s choreography shows the influence of popular dances of the time with the Charleston and shimmy most prominent. After all the hyperactivity of Feore’s dances in Act 1 it is almost a relief that she provides Velma and Roxie with such a graceful floor-bound duet for “Hot Honey’s Rag”.

Chicago in its previous iterations was a difficult musical to like. Murder, corruption and an unrelenting tone of cynicism would not seem to be the ingredients of an enjoyable night out. Yet, Donna Feore has reconceived the show as primarily a dance musical and has emphasized the artifice of the theatre in every scene. You can’t help but be thrilled by the energy of the dancing and the power of the singing that elevate the sordid material to the stars. Forget the currently running 1996 revival on Broadway and forget the 2002 film. This is the Chicago that gets the show right and will make you stand up and cheer.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Velma Kelly with members of the ensemble, © 2022 David Hou; R. Markus as Mary Sunshine, Chelsea Preston as Roxie Hart, Dan Chameroy as Billy Flynn and Sandra Caldwell as Mama Morton, © 2022 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.