Showing posts with label Kander & Ebb. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kander & Ebb. Show all posts

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Maltz’s Rousing ‘Chicago’ Resonates Relevancy

Here’s a musical that is in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s wheelhouse, produced from the ground up, not a traveling show but showcasing an original cast, costuming, scenic design, choreography and directing.  We saw it on Broadway less than two years ago, and expected it to be tired. To our surprise it was still a great musical, feeling as fresh as ever.  And now the Maltz just further elevated the show and its composer and lyricist, Kander and Ebb.  Perhaps it is a musical team that does not immediately spring to mind as does Rodgers and Hammerstein or Learner and Lowe, yet Chicago and Cabaret (along with another of my favorites, not as frequently performed, Zorba) alone would qualify them for a Broadway hall of fame. 
Belva Annan 1924

While Bob Fosse’s unrivaled choreography (as well as his being co-author of “the book”) is closely identified with the musical and its reputation rests mostly on that, the score, and lyrics make this musical a classic.

The story is actually based on the trial records of Belva Annan a 1924 murderess.  So here, art imitates reality and in so doing makes a broader statement about today.  Indeed, it is especially striking seeing the show yet again now: how contemporary it is, a society that twists “news” into a circus and worships at the altar of celebrity and the deep dark cynicism of the story  -- murderesses vie for attention, promoted by a corrupt judicial system and the public’s appetite for sensationalism, then becoming a song and dance team capitalizing on the fame of their crimes.  What a country!

It is so rewarding to see it reimagined by the Maltz in the more intimate confines of its theatre, every bit as professional as a New York production, and, again, so timely.

Samantha Sturm as Roxie
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Broadway just completed its search for a “new Roxie” for their long running revival.  The Maltz found their Roxie in Samantha Sturm, who we saw in the ensemble of the My Fair Lady revival a couple of years ago at Lincoln Center.  It’s nice to see someone who has played supporting roles enjoy a breakout opportunity.  The other pivotal role of Velma belongs to Sarah Bowden who plays it with sultry gusto.

The entire cast is terrific and although Bob Fosse is in the bones of the musical it is now reinterpreted by the director and choreographer, a two time Tony® nominee, Denis Jones, who was an original company member of the show’s 1996 Broadway revival, the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history and still going.  The Maltz production illustrates why it makes perfect sense for the director and choreographer to be one person; the two are so closely intertwined in Chicago.  It is easy to see the Fosse influence in certain numbers but some departures are made to make the terrific, energetic dance numbers more suitable for the Maltz stage
Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Chicago Photo by Jason Nuttle

Sarah Bowden Photo by Jason Nuttle
Velma and Company present a big opening production number to establish the roaring 20s background of the show, capturing the decadence of the times in "All That Jazz "  Sarah Bowden shows her energetic, sexy dancing abilities supported by the cast.

Roxie Hart’s opening number, "Funny Honey" is a particularly sardonic piece about taking advantage of her husband who has a good heart but is gullible: What if the world /slandered my name?/ Why he’d be right there / taking the blame.  Samantha Sturm’s voice is appropriately sweetly innocent.

“Cell Block Tango” is a driving, funny chorus number performed by the murderesses held in the jail, with their own murder stories, but declaring themselves innocent, as the refrain after each story tells.…He had it comin' / He had it comin' / He only had himself to blame.  This is an ingeniously choreographed number, six inmates, including Velma, dancing around and posturing on chairs as only Fosse could choreograph.

Matron "Mama" Morton, is gustily played by Altamiece Carolyn Cooper, singing her introductory number "When You're Good to Mama" which is a tongue in cheek vaudevillian song in red hot mama style.  As cynical “Mama” says to Roxie when she first arrives, “relax, in this town, murder is a form of entertainment.”
Samantha Sturm, Nicolas Dromard, Anna McNeely Photo by Jason Nuttle

Nicolas Dromard is the smooth as silk shyster lawyer, Billy Flynn, pulling the puppet strings of the court, clients and the press/public (Anna McNeely hilariously playing the lead reporter, Mary Sunshine), singing "All I Care About," which is an over the top song and dance number, cynical and crass.  Everyone knows he’s lying and Dromard pulls this song off deliciously.  As Billy says, “Chicago can’t resist a reformed sinner.”

One of my personal favorites in the show is a sweet ballad duet sung by Roxie and Velma.  In "My Own Best Friend" they come to the realization that it’s up to each of them to be their own best friend, watch out for their interests, the melody changing keys several times.

A clear contrast to all the self serving, attention-getting characters in the show is Blakely Slaybaugh’s portrayal as the sad sack Amos Hart, singing "Mr. Cellophane" a heavy rag vaudevillian song in perfect keeping with the show, full of irony and self-pity, the lyrics of which – especially the introduction – is worthy of Larry Hart of Rodgers and Hart fame.  Is it mere coincidence that Amos’ last name is “Hart?”

A particularly contemporary song from the show is Billy and Company’s "Razzle Dazzle" about how easily the public is fooled by just conducting a 3 ring circus of events, distracting the public from the truth.*

And finally "Nowadays” is a wonderful song and dance routine in which Velma and Roxie extol how easily it is to beat the rap of murder.  It is a beautiful melody, the irony of the lyrics at the end resonating In fifty years or so / it’s gonna change you know / But oh, it’s heaven nowadays.  Change, it does not.  Self promotion, fame, and obsessive egotism prevail making the show’s themes even more meaningful today.

The production’s creative team features scenic designer Adam Koch known for many of the Theatre’s big production shows, and his longtime collaborator, associate scenic designer and projection designer Steven Royal.  Their stage has two tiers, a brick background with jail bars.  The orchestra neatly fits into a two level platform but mostly hidden stage right. 

Dramatic lighting is provided by Cory Pattak.  Imaginative costumes, many of which are “punk rock” underscoring the corrupt nature of the story, is by designer Andrea Hood, although some of the costumes seemed a little constricting, particularly on “Mama” and Billy.  But her huge ostrich feather fans for Billy’s “showgirls” offset that with wonderful colors.  Great wig designs were by Jon Jordan. Music director Eric Alsford conducts a live orchestra of nine, with himself at the keyboard, and the help of award-winning resident sound designer Marty Mets.

The entire Maltz production of Chicago brings home some painful realities of then and “nowadays” in splendid song and dance.

*Does art imitate life or vice versa?  As I was concluding this review, I heard that the President’s legal team has been finalized for the impeachment trial in the Senate, all closely connected to him or recognized as “celebrity attorneys.”  As Billy Flynn sings, Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle / Razzle dazzle 'em / Show 'em the first rate sorcerer you are / Long as you keep 'em way off balance / How can they spot you've got no talents / Razzle Dazzle 'em / And they'll make you a star!
Nicolas Dromard and Chorus Photo by Jason Nuttle