That Toddling Town

Review of Chicago, Ivoryton Playhouse

In New York, Chicago, the musical, has been enjoying a popular revival for quite some time. It’s a somewhat cynical show that might be just the thing for these times of political chicanery.

John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the music and lyrics for the songs, seem to be drawn to the demimondaine. They wrote the songs for Cabaret, a show famous for its evocation of seedy showmanship. Cabaret was choreographed by Bob Fosse, who wrote the book of Chicago with Ebb and choreographed the original Broadway production. Unfortunately, he was unable to direct the film version. Still, the late Fosse’s name is associated with Chicago since the revival in New York was mounted by Fosse protégé Ann Reinking, “in the style of Bob Fosse.” All of which is a way of saying that the pedigree of Chicago is strong, though it lacks the punch that Cabaret retains. The show, now playing in an original, not-touring production at Ivoryton Playhouse, directed by Todd L. Underwood, is never quite as entertaining as we hope it will be.

There are obvious similarities to Cabaret: the heroine, Roxie Hart (Lyn Philistine), like Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, would like to be a star of the stage. Instead of a stylish master-of-ceremonies presiding over a cabaret, we have Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton), a smooth lawyer who stages courtroom scenes and press coverage for maximum effect. Even the cross-dressing that is a feature of Cabaret comes into play, though I won’t say how so as not to spoil what may be, for some, a big reveal. Then too, the show opens with the tune “And All That Jazz,” sung by vaudevillian Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris), immediately calling to mind Fosse’s amazing film All That Jazz, and featuring a dance routine reminiscent of Reinking’s big number in that film. As the show-biz dictum reads, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and cribbing from successful works sustains many a later career.

 Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris) (photo: Anne Hudson)

Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris) (photo: Anne Hudson)

The source material for Chicago, a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins with script adaptation by David Thompson, was all about the showmanship behind the actual trials of two women accused of killing their husbands. One had been a performer and that detail is retained in the character of Velma in the play and musical; Roxie is hoping that the sensationalism around her own trial will propel her into fame as well. The thought that any of the women in the cell block are innocent is dispensed with when, in “Cell Block Tango,” each proudly tells how she killed a man who, each asserts, deserved to die. The cynicism comes in when we realize that sex appeal and sentimental sympathy are the only assets these women have.

The point is that Flynn is the kind of lawyer who knows how to work the system to achieve results. A problem with the show in Ivoryton is that Flynn, as played by Sutton, is never quite sharp and enthralling enough. He’s a bit too much TV game show host and not enough canny, Chicago shyster. In the show’s best number, “We Both Reach for the Gun,” his style of control comes off well, particularly as Philistine is a very convincing puppet. Indeed, Philistine, in the role Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon played in the original, is the best thing in the show. She looks the part of essentially sweet girl turned killer and puts across the vapid but vivacious Roxie with moxie. It helps too that she’s skilled in the broad comedy of the show as well as in the dance numbers, particularly her show-off number “Roxie.”

 Roxie Hart (Lyn Philistine), Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton) (photo: Anne Hudson)

Roxie Hart (Lyn Philistine), Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton) (photo: Anne Hudson)

As Velma, Harris has the bigger part as she opens both Acts and gets to work-out through an entertaining variety of dance routines in “I Can’t Do It Alone.” She’s the brassier of the two, but “When Velma Takes the Stand” seems to lack focus a bit, while her duet with Matron “Mama” Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman) is a nicely comic lyrical number to break up the somewhat static courtroom events of Act Two. Velma stands for the tried-and-true aspects of audience appeal—vaudeville style—and that’s what the show, as well as her defense, relies on.

At Ivoryton, the staging is stripped-down, the costumes are becoming—I particularly liked the look and moves of lithe Caroline Lellouche who plays “not guilty” Hunyak—the dance routines serviceable and the band tight. Kander’s score incorporates Twenties’ style melodies that, in Paul Feyer's hands, have zest and showiness aplenty. In supporting roles, Trotman shows off her finesse with Morton’s big number, “When You’re Good to Mama,” and Z. Spiegel’s upper-register for do-gooder Mary Sunshine’s “A Little Bit of Good” is quite convincing. And as “Mister Cellophane” Amos Hart, Ian Greer Shain mixes humor and pathos as a good stage clown should. Among the ensemble men, my eye most often followed Taavon Gamble, who also plays the Judge, and Danny McHugh, who also plays Sergeant Fogarty, and does a nice bit of soft-shoe early in the show.

 Matron "Mama" Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman)

Matron "Mama" Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman)

As a song-and-dance spectacle, Chicago keeps the show tunes coming, as a plot it’s pretty thin, and as a comedy about crass opportunism it doesn’t have much point. As a show, it’s supposed to wow us with the razzle dazzle while letting us know—with a nudge in the ribs—that “razzle dazzle” is all we want.

Well, not really.

 

Chicago
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins
Script adaptation by David Thompson
Directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood

Musical Director: Paul Feyer; Set Designer: Martin Scott Marchitto; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume and Wig Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Production Stage Manager: William Vann Carlton; Assistant Stage Manager: Randy Lawson

Cast: Jose Amor Christensen, Sarah Mae Banning, Grant Benedict, Daniela Delahuerta, Taavon Gamble, Stacey Harris, Caroline Lellouche, Danny McHugh, Lyn Philistine, Jason Daniel Rath, Nick Raynor, Carolina Santos Read, Ian Greer Shain, Z. Spiegel, Christopher Sutton, Sheniqua Denise Trotman, Lauren Watkins, Sarah Mozelle Waxman

Orchestra: Paul Feyer, keyboard/conductor; Seth A. Bailey, trumpet; Michael Blancaflor, drums; Adam Clark, tuba/bass; Paul Gerst, trombone; Daniel Hartington, guitar; Benjamin Lostocco, trumpet; Alan Wasserman, reeds; Erin M. White, reeds

Ivoryton Playhouse
June 29-July 24, 2016