Friday, August 17, 2012
Theater review: Chicago at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas
"Mr. Cellophane" was one of the most commanding performances of one of the least commanding characters in Broadway history.
DALLAS It’s a musical that was 20 years ahead of its time. It proved to be Bob Fosse’s stage masterpiece, though he died 10 years before its award-winning revival. It won six Academy Awards and re-ignited the movie musical. Yet Chicago is a brutally cynical, no-frills piece of theater that doesn’t pull punches and doesn’t hide in subtlety. It’s simultaneously a broad vaudeville act and a vicious satire of media culture. Fosse could have never imagined how a musical based on a Prohibition-era murder would relate to a 24-hour news cycle and social media culture. The more pop culture is entrenched in media and connectivity, the more Chicago stays a fresh and relevant work.
It makes sense then, that the AT&T Performing Arts Center would open its Lexus Broadway Series with Chicago in a limited two-week engagement. The Winspear Opera House has seen an incredible run of shows over the past few years and continues this year after landing War Horse, Fela!, and the revival of Anything Goes. They’ve opened their fourth season, though, with the longest-running revival in Broadway history and a show guaranteed to entertain.
Chicago is a friendlier, funnier spectacle than its kissing cousin, Cabaret. John Kander and Fred Ebb keep the smoky atmosphere of their classic masterwork but musically play on the giddiness of '20s jazz, ragtime, and piano blues rather than the ironic tragedy of wartime German cabaret. Ebb and Fosse’s book is riddled with a gleeful mix of utter silliness and caustic wit. Characters are asked to be cartoons in one moment and acid-tongued cynics in the next. Kander’s music is spare and staccato, leaving notes and phrases hanging in the air for the audience to ponder. It’s a potent mix that isn’t afraid to gut-punch its audience with tension and tragedy but ultimately aims to entertain.
The current national tour is a facsimile of the New York production that raked in six Tony Awards, two of which went to its choreographer and director. The production is just as airy and spare as the music, with most of the stage dominated by the orchestra. Every performer is garbed in shades of black, dark blue, or grey, relying on lighting for any splash of color. In many ways, Chicago is what Bertolt Brecht would have created if commissioned to write a Broadway hit. The show relies on its performers, its music, and its content to drive the show, with no stage element wasted.
Chicago also requires its performers to leave everything on the table because of how bare the stage is and how close the performers are to the audience. Terra C. MacLeod is charged with opening the night as Velma Kelly, a jaded ex-vaudeville star who turns a double homicide into media stardom. MacLeod seems off from the very beginning of the show, forcing her voice through a cartoonish Midwestern accent. She is stiff and awkward for most of the show, refusing to show any vulnerability in a technically sound but rigid character. The performance never touches on the sultry, smoky side of Velma, instead playing her as a needy, desperate woman who cannot survive without attention. MacLeod’s commitment to her choices is incredible and proficient, but her mugging wears thin and her singing suffers as a byproduct. It’s not a bad performance but it’s an awkward choice that ultimately distracts from the rest of the show.
Tracy Shayne, on the other hand, is playfully mischievous as Roxie Hart, the up-and-comer in the Cook County justice system. Shayne keeps Roxie light and airy without being ditsy. Roxie is a character that can be played to extremes: Either she’s a wide-eyed, naïve girl oblivious to her crime or she’s a bitterly cynical woman who’s finally getting her chance to shine. Shayne sits comfortably in between these two, self-aware of how the press views her yet completely blindsided by the moral implications of the murder she’s committed. At times her performance gets a little airy or flighty to match the weight of the subject matter, but she never lets it linger for too long and provides a strong anchor for the incredible circus that spins around her.
The ringmaster of that circus is Chicago’s most recent celebrity star, John O’Hurley, who seems born for the role of charming lawyer and media maestro Billy Flynn. O’Hurley, best known as Elaine’s bizarrely hilarious boss, J. Peterman on Seinfeld, fits the role like a glove with his commanding voice and presence. He’s a chameleon of the highest order, playing every deadpan joke with impeccable timing while keeping his character incredibly grounded. Unlike his work on Seinfeld, O’Hurley cuts his comic sensibilities with a healthy dose of dry sarcasm that fits Chicago’s satire perfectly. It goes without saying that the actor’s smooth, rich baritone is one of the highlights of the evening. Broadway shows are often accused of bringing in celebrities to boost ticket sales, but O’Hurley’s performance proves that those decisions can pay off in great performances.
Ron Orbach, cousin of the legendary stage and screen actor Jerry Orbach, gives one of the best performances of the year as Roxie’s sad-sack husband Amos Hart. Orbach is dumpy and shy as Hart and mainly contributes to small moments of comic relief in the first act. Yet his performance of “Mr. Cellophane” might be one of the best ever given.
Orbach has the audience in the palm of his hand the entire song. In the first verse, he mostly evokes chuckles at how sadly invisible his life is. After a humiliating conversation and revelation, though, Orbach has the audience caught in complete silence, hanging on every word.
In an instant, he busts into a song-and-dance that has the audience cheering audibly. Just as it reaches its climax, Orbach kills the momentum of the song and shyly walks offstage, tears of sympathy welling up in everyone’s eyes. It was one of the most commanding performances of one of the least commanding characters in Broadway history.
Kecia Lewis-Evans gives the opposite of Orbach’s performance as the stately, powerful Matron “Mama” Morton. Lewis-Evans barely moves from her spot during her signature number, “When You’re Good to Mama,” yet all eyes are glued to her. She commands attention with a rich, deep voice, full of power, which can switch on a dime to a glass-shattering soprano. Lewis-Evans has the most unbelievable vocal range, and despite limited stage time steals every scene she’s in but never pulls focus from where it’s needed. She owns the role with compelling conviction and clarity.
One of the most interesting performances of the evening comes from D. Micciche as Mary Sunshine, a buttoned-up, flowery magazine essayist. Micciche trills each line with an overly operatic soprano that is even more hilarious considering Mary Sunshine’s great reveal later in the show. The audience on Tuesday evening didn’t get the joke until it smacked them in the face. Yet Micciche is utterly committed to the character and sustains the vocal style throughout the entire show, which is no small feat. The performance is definitely an intriguing side story that pays off big later.
The ensemble acquits itself well, being supportive and helping create Chicago’s frantic environment. There are a couple of standout performers, one of whom is Lenny Daniel as The Jury. During Roxie’s trial, Daniel alternates between characters so quickly and slyly that the audience misses it as the scene continues. His timing and manipulation of his face and body fill the pauses in the scene with uproarious laughter. Couple this with his solid dancing skills, especially for a stockier, muscular performer, and Daniel stands out from the crowd.
The other outstanding ensemble performance comes from Nina Ordman as Hunyak, a Hungarian woman whose only lines in English are “not guilty.” Never mind Ordman’s consistent accent and command of lines in another language. Ordman’s face is full of wide-eyed determination that never wavers, even when she performs the gut-wrenching “Hungarian Rope Trick.” Lithe and sinewy, yet still somewhat innocent, Ordman is forced to perform with her face, body, and eyes more than her voice, and definitely earns a mention.
One of the weakest performances comes from the ensemble as well. Brent Heuser is unconvincing and clumsy as Fred Casely, Roxie’s “other man” and also the victim of Roxie’s murder. Heuser sticks out like a sore thumb; he’s stiff and awkward as a dancer and his performance is stilted and hushed in a show built on complete commitment to the character. Amongst an otherwise solid cast, Heuser just doesn’t seem to mix and tends to stall the momentum of many of the scenes he’s in.
Still, the performances in this production really sell the show, and overcome some underwhelming technical production. Chicago has generally had the same setup since its move to Broadway in 1996. Yet the execution at the Winspear seems off the mark in some major ways.
Of particular note is the execution of Scott Lehrer’s sound design, which rendered numerous moments unheard. Actors are miked over the head, ostensibly to hide the microphone from the audience’s view. Not only is the choice frivolous, as the stylistic choices of the show allow for visible microphones, but it also makes many characters unintelligible. Even O’Hurley, with a voice that could fill a stadium, is muted in his first number, “All I Care About.” It seems as though the actors are mixed lower than the orchestra, which only compounds a sound issue presented by having an orchestra onstage. The design doesn’t work for the space and leaves viewers straining to hear.
Ken Billington’s lighting design, which won a Tony Award, is better suited to the Winspear, filling the space with cool smoky blues and sizzling reds and pinks that complement and punch up the otherwise bleak stage setup. Almost all the color in Chicago comes in the lighting, helping shift moods at breakneck speed and keeping the show moving. Granted, the spotlight operators are somewhat sloppy, hitting the proscenium arch several times. The design fits well, though, and enhances the production immensely.
John Lee Beatty’s scenic design is straight from the Brecht playbook, with the actors seated on chairs on either side of a structure and staircase that the orchestra sits on. The centerpiece of the entire show is the orchestra, which jolts the audience out of their element and destroys any sense of a fourth wall. Beatty’s design is spare but the effect is incredible, as the audience engages in the show much in the same way they would at a rock concert or sporting event. Unfortunately, the stage is too close to the audience, which throws off the spacing of the show considerably. It’s possible that much of the stiffness and hesitance of the performances is due to the cramped space the actors have to work with.
Even without that space, though, Ann Reinking’s choreography, in the style of Fosse, shines as the unspoken star of the show. The dancers are sinewy, seductive, and sensuous. There’s never a wasted movement or gesture, and the flow of movement is always at a tempo that perfectly fits the scene. It’s also incredibly sexual, rhythmically twisting, and undulating to keep with the sultry, seedy environment that lingers around the characters and story.
William Ivey Long’s costume design plays on the choreography well, accentuating curves and hugging every single part of the performers’ bodies. Even more than some productions, the costumes in this production play up the sexuality of Chicago. The women are often in nothing more than slightly more flexible lingerie, and the pants on men are incredibly form-fitting. The exceptions are characters like Billy Flynn, who oozes charm in a simple tuxedo and bow tie, or Amos, whose dumpiness is even more accentuated by a frumpy navy sweater over an unkempt shirt and tie. The choices aren’t groundbreaking but they serve the show well.
The orchestra is outstanding under the direction of Eric Barnes. The musicians are on top of their game, even reining in wayward performances. Yet even more impressive is the sense of humor the orchestra’s interaction with other characters. Barnes isn’t the strongest actor in the world but he’s got perfect comic timing, ignoring Amos when asked for exit music, or reading a newspaper Roxie hands him before she sings her song. The device of involving the orchestra could be phony and annoying but the orchestra plays the role charmingly well, drawing the audience in even more. It doesn’t hurt that their musicianship is top-notch as well.
There’s a reason Chicago has managed to become the longest-running revival in Broadway history – it’s incredibly relevant and prescient, nearly 40 years after its first production. It’s cynical for sure, and it’s not evident at the end that the characters have learned or grown or that there’s a message to be discerned from the show. Fosse, Kander, and Ebb are purposefully coy in the penultimate number, “Nowadays.” Yet this production manages to take the audience on the show’s roller coaster ride of laughter, tears, anger, and indifference and drop them off, dizzy but satisfied. It’s an experience to savor and chew on afterwards. Despite some technical missteps and some early hesitance, Chicago manages to capture the audience and never let them go, a rare feat for some shows nowadays.
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