Vulgarity, notoriety, and scandal are so prized in America's big cities that it was inevitable that a big, brassy musical would come along to celebrate and satirize them all. After writing the songs for Cabaret in 1966 – the wicked ones, the decadent ones, and the sentimental ones – John Kander and Fred Ebb proved to be the perfect team to apply a hatchet to the corrupt heart of America in 1975 with Chicago, based on Maurine Dallas Watkins' 1926 three-act comedy. Audiences and Tony Award panelists weren't quite as ready to fully embrace such a saturnine musical – or Bob Fosse's distinctive choreography – as they would be when Chicago was revived in 1996. Mind you, a 936-performance run wasn't shabby for the original, but the revival, suddenly prophetic and on-point in the era of the O.J. Simpson trial, captured six Tony Awards and is still running strong after more than 7,700 performances. The roles of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, the sexpot murderesses who vie for celebrity in a Chicago jail, and slick sleazeball lawyer Billy Flynn, manipulator of juries and media, have become magnets for movie stars and celebrities. Sofia Vergara, Melanie Griffith, Brooke Shields, Ashlee Simpson, Sandy Duncan, Lynda Carter, Rita Wilson, Patrick Swayze, Usher, Huey Lewis, Michael C. Hall, Jerry Springer, Billy Zane, and Christie Brinkley are among the replacements that have fueled the current run, the longest ever for an American musical – and I assume you’ve heard all about the Oscar-winning movie of 2002. In a historic twist, the current Davidson Community Players' production at Duke Family Performance Hall is directed by Corey Mitchell, the Northwest School of the Arts teacher who won the first Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education while DCP’s Chicago was still in rehearsal.
I could hail Mitchell and choreographer Ashlyn Keller Sumner as miracle workers after just the opening, displaying an "All That Jazz" ensemble exuberantly fronted by newcomer Mindy Hudson as Velma, with plenty of perfectly synchronized "Fosse hands" behind her. Slightly less than a year ago, however, director Melissa Ohlman-Roberge and choreographer Emily Hunter accomplished similar wonders in the thunderous title number of 42nd Street. Among community theatre companies, DCP is unique in the demands it makes on its performers and in the dedicated hard work their performers put in to fulfill them. I had no doubt that I would savor Hudson every time I saw her throughout the evening, a pleasant prospect with "Cell Block Tango," "When Velma Takes the Stand," and the imperishable "Class" yet to come. But I had early misgivings about Meredith Swanson when we broke away to Roxie Hart’s illicit tryst with nightclub hustler Fred Casely, whom she promptly murders, counting on her shambling hubby to take the rap. Swanson didn't sound at all comfortable with the low notes of "Funny Honey," Roxie's belittling tribute to her trusting Amos, so we still could have been in for a trying evening. Thankfully, Roxie's songs in the Cook County jail took Swanson higher into her vocal range, bringing out her natural talent, and by the time we reached "Roxie," our heroine's chance to flash some Fosse hands of her own – surrounded by a bevy of "boys" – Swanson had completely flowered, moving around with diva flair.
Like Swanson, Bill Caswell had just enough confidence to pull off Billy Flynn. From his first entrance, we saw that Caswell had even more support buoying him in "All I Care About," a whole flock of "girls" adoring him with feather fans. He's the celebrated trial lawyer that every gal in the clink is depending on, whose every plea enraptures bleeding-heart columnist Mary Sunshine, and he's an absolute savior for Amos, who ratted out Roxie but meekly has regrets. Over the years, the cheap tawdry format of Chicago (subtitled "A Musical Vaudeville") has proven marvelously forgiving for the parade of inexperienced replacements listed above, and the same voodoo is at work here. Even after Caswell hit his stride as Billy, conning and charming everyone in the building, a scared, deer-in-the-headlights look flickered across his eyes, questioning whether he was really getting away with this. Similarly, Swanson was sneaking looks at Hudson during Roxie and Velma's final duets, checking whether she was executing the right moves. She always was. Something in the very fabric of Chicago redeems and elevates these unmasked inadequacies when we see them, rather than disappointing us.
A woman needs to possess a certain amount of brass to audition for the role of Roxie, knowing that she will be singing about her boobs and nose, but is there any threshold of self-esteem at all for the role of Amos? Watching John DeMicco clutching his hat as he presumed to enter Flynn's office, or in his signature "Mister Cellophane" solo, I suspected that many men who showed up for auditions may have disqualified themselves by betraying too much self-esteem. The bar isn't too low for DeMicco, and his final self-effacing exit was simply precious. On the other hand, if you've been imprinted with Queen Latifah's performance as Matron "Mama" Morton, you might have trouble adjusting to Nicole Watts, who doesn't fit the plus-sized template of the extorting jailkeep. Close your eyes for a second or two as "When You're Good to Mama" begins, and you'll be amply compensated by Watts' outsized singing voice. Costume designer Justin Hall also successfully contrives to distinguish "Mama" from the criminal riff-raff soliciting her favors. He's also helpful in keeping countertenor J. King's secret safe as he portrays Mary Sunshine.
The whole technical operation – Dee Blackburn's set, Brandon Kincaid's sound, and Gordon Olson's lighting design – maintains the glitter that helps sustain our interest through all the wickedness, corruption, and decadence of Chicago. It's really not surprising that it took America 70 years to fully embrace Watkins' chronicle, based on true-life killer celebrities of the Windy City during the 1920s. Watkins herself repudiated what she had written, so it wasn't until after the born-again Christian's death that the rights were sold to producer Richard Fryer, choreographer Fosse, and his wife Gwen Verdon, who became the original Roxie Hart. Considering how often justice is still perverted in America and how rabidly our media still pander to this country's celebrity mania, Chicago still remains a bitter and necessary pill to swallow.
Chicago continues through Sunday, June 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.