Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Theater review: Garland Civic Theatre’s Chicago is sensually electric
You won’t leave the musical with any new insight, but you will walk out with a smile and a quick step.
GARLAND Visually exciting. Auditorily engrossing. Sensually electric. Emotionally powerful.
These are the things a production might hear about their creation. It might be the quintessential goal of every production team and Garland Civic Theatre comes close with its opening weekend of Chicago, a “Musical Vaudeville” written by the team of Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse and John Kander. The musical premiered in 1975, had revivals and a couple of movies, and the current Broadway production, which opened in 1996, holds the record for the longest-running musical revival and it’s the third longest show in Broadway history.
Chicago is also a popular local production for community theater. It has a simple story, great music, fantastic choreography, and an opportunity for theaters to create costumes, sets and acting in their own styles. GCT did these with panache under the direction of Kyle McClaran.
McClaran didn’t just direct. He designed the set, costumes and sound, and all were first-rate. Entering into the theater was a treat for the eyes, with brilliantly stark reds and blacks, large jazzy murals, created by Veronica Quirk, and razzle-dazzle set pieces of moving stairways, platforms, tables, jail cells, and decorations from the 1920s. The bright and surprising collage of visual art greeted the audience but also created details we could linger over prior to curtain. What a treat! Catherine Montgomery lit the set with colors that highlighted the stark contrasts, added moving spots to highlight actors, and used enhancing lights to bring out the array of colors in the costumes.
McClaran’s costuming was lavish and over-the-top, in a good way. I don’t remember any actor who wore the same suit twice, but even if a base piece was used, accessories constantly changed to make the costume look vastly different. The array of colors was extraordinary, from stark contrasting colors like the set to every pastel you could imagine. The suits ran from prison garb to tuxedos to brightly flashy gowns with boas to pastel summer suits in silk and chiffon — a feast for the eyes.
Of course, sets and decorations tied perfectly to Veronica Quirk’s props. Each was linked to a story line and masterfully used by the actors. And all of this mise-en-scene was visually exciting.
McClaran created a sound design that included musicians onstage. Everyone in the cast wore head mics and finding a balance between band and actors, either solo or in ensemble, was a challenge McClaran handled well. The one area of disconnect was the balance between songs and speaking. Mics were set for singing volume, and there was no problem understanding lyrics, but when actors shouted dialog or speeches, they over-drove the mics and I couldn’t understand.
Speaking of the band, I don’t know how only three musicians created so much sound with acoustic instruments. Charlie Kim was the musical director and pianist. He was joined by trumpeter Toshiro Chun and drummer T. Brad Hawkins. They were onstage as part of the set and dressed the part. Their orchestrations and the sheer mass of their musical sound rivaled touring groups. That large sound behind the vocals matched and drove the singers’ energy.
Kim also directed the singers and they were top-notch. Soloists were powerful, and when they combined in small groups, harmonies appeared that gave the songs new depth. But when they joined as an ensemble, as they often did, they were a symphony! Lyrics were tight, harmonies were exceptional, and their timing and balance with the band was perfect. The singers poured character into those songs to tell us the story. It was auditorily engrossing.
Chicago has 39 roles played by 19 actors, and each created their characters, sang songs and danced. When you take on Chicago, you adopt Bob Fosse’s choreography and everyone performs something close to that style. Choreographer Christian Houston accomplished this with a large cast on a small stage and I was impressed how she got them moving with the full-body style in lavish costumes amidst tight, compressed set pieces. Every dancer knew their steps and they moved together as one, each with their own unique interpretation through their character. These dances were sensually electric.
In Chicago, Roxie Hart is the latest woman to commit murder and becomes the biggest news story in Chicago, an apparent windfall to her fame and stardom. The Chicago press and legal system are manipulated by skillful lawyers to get their clients off and make them famous until the next big story breaks. In the end, Roxie’s trial ends with yet a new woman murdering people on the steps of the courthouse, stealing fame from Roxie, just as she stole it from Velma. It’s a well-known story, but Chicago tells it in a style like no other.
Played by Jayjeny Smith, Roxie walks the line between her apparent innocence for the media sake and the little vixen she shows to her lawyer and Velma. With the most innocent of faces, Smith pretends to sob a tear or two, while looking at the audience with a devilish smile. She puts on the air of a fallen sinner who’s learned her lesson, while telling Roxie’s real motivations through songs. The emotional revelation comes through “Funny Honey” about her husband and later “Tap Dance” with Roxie’s Boys. After her acquittal at trial, she laments her failures in “Nowadays,” a quiet ballad that evolves into her big duet with Velma and then into their new stage act. They both achieved fame in the end.
When she first gets to jail Roxie meets Velma Kelly, her vaudeville idol and the current media sweetheart. Velma was played by Kelley Barker as an arrogant and mighty star who wants nothing to do with the upstart, that is, until Roxie steals Velma’s fame. Barker was a strong Kelly, as she had the look and quality of a star. Her singing and speaking voice oozed confidence. The show opened with Barker singing Kelly’s iconic, “All That Jazz,” joined by the ensemble. It was a powerful, driving number that set the tone for the show. Barker’s voice was powerful and she exuded a sexy jazziness which characterized Velma as a vaudeville star, a bit like Gypsy Rose Lee. She also had to play hurt and damaged, as Roxie takes over her spotlight. Barker did this in her “I Can’t Do It Alone” and “I Know a Girl.” They became almost pleading ballads to show Velma’s vulnerability. As a star who had killed her sister, her stage partner, Kelly had to learn that she needed someone to work with. Barker showed this fall from grace through bluster at first, aimed at Roxie, but then began to soften her feelings to pull Roxie in as her partner.
Both women are represented by lawyer Billy Flynn, played by Christopher Hartman. Flynn is the quintessential “shyster” lawyer who manipulates Chicago media and the courts. During his own iconic number, “All I Care About,” Hartman’s high baritone vocal range and smooth style allowed him to show a man who is both lovable and easy to despise, much like a snake-oil salesman. Flynn only cares about money, and Hartman gave him over-the-top flashiness, like an experienced showman selling the media and juries on Roxie’s innocence. He exuded flash during his “Razzle Dazzle” and later during the court scenes.
Amos Hart is the hapless husband being used by Roxie. John C. Hogwood played Amos as a sad-sack, low-class man who puts up with Roxie’s lies. But he’s not the normal hobo clown figure that’s portrayed. Hogwood made him the perfect put-upon, depressed sap one learns to love because of his weakness. Though Hogwood’s stance is slumped, he showed Amos’ strong sense of right and wrong in his voice and thoughtful choices. His major solo is one of the most popular songs in Chicago, “Mr. Cellophane.” Hogwood sang this as true as you can get if you really feel invisible. Amos spoke for the rest of us in a star-studded society with his one momentary spotlight, and Hogwood’s voice and demeanor fit this song perfectly.
Three other characters stepped out in this story. Matron Mama Morton runs the women’s jail and was played by veteran DFW actress, Cindy Kahn. She looked and dressed the part of Matron and showed how Mama is enriched by the payments she exacts from her prisoners for her ability to get them publicity. Her costumes evolved from her initial prison uniform to increasingly more flamboyant dresses and gowns. But it was Kahn’s voice that grabbed the stage. She was a booming, ballsy singer with a deep alto who put her character into the songs, especially “When You’re Good to Mama” and a duet with Velma in “Class.”
Timothy Turner-Parish was the Master of Ceremonies who narrates the show, announces titles of scenes, and sets the tone for each. His costume changed each time he appeared. Turner-Parish changed both his vocal style and character based on the scene, so we got to see him go from flash and flamboyance to subtle, late-night radio announcer. He also played a Court Clerk and bailiff. While his singing was mostly buried within the ensemble songs, his dances and body movements were precise and each pronouncement was full of energy.
Finally, Mary Sunshine, the news reporter called a sob-sister by real journalists, was played by Jack Bledsoe. Chicago is performed as a vaudeville show, much of it a fantastical imagination by Roxie, and it’s funny throughout; so this casting was a magical choice by McClaran. Bledsoe used a strong and high falsetto voice in his creation of Mary Sunshine. Not perfect falsetto, however, and Bledsoe’s falling into lower range made it all the funnier. His portrayal of a sob-sister singing the praises of the women prisoners was only upstaged by his outlandish costumes, giant hats and feather boas.
Many more characters had choice scenes and were just as hilarious, such as the prison women singing their song “He Had It Coming” or Roxie’s Boys who sang “Me and My Baby” in tuxedos and diapers!
All in all, Chicago’s story came through the songs and characters and was emotionally powerful in a fantastical, funny way. You won’t leave the musical with any new insight, but you will walk out with a smile and a quick step. I’d suggest you just head over to Garland and experience this iconic musical for yourself.
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