University of Michigan's 'Chicago' is packed with razzle dazzle and more
Photo by Peter Smith Photography
Perhaps; but it couldn’t possibly beat the entertainment value of U-M’s phenomenal production. For although people throw around the phrase “Broadway quality” a bit too liberally for my taste, this description, in reference to U-M’s “Chicago,” feels perfectly apt. (What else to think when, while taking notes on the numbers and performers that make up the production’s highlights, you’ve jotted down nearly every tune and main actor?)
“Chicago,” which premiered on Broadway in 1975, focuses on two fictional murderesses who, in the 1920s Chicago, killed a lover: Velma Kelly (Casey Low), a vaudeville performer who found her lover and her sister in a compromising position; and Roxie Hart (Grace Morgan), a bored wife and showgirl who, when her lover announces his intention to leave her, shoots him, then convinces her gullible, loving husband Amos (Harry Katzman) to take the fall.
Both women end up in a prison presided over by corrupt Mama Morton (Katherine Thomas), and while in jail, they vie for the attention of slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Conor McGiffin) and the media, thereby hoping to earn fame, public sympathy, and a lucrative future in show business.
Director Linda Goodrich, though she never appears on stage, is one of the production’s biggest stars by virtue of her sensational choreography. Employing the signature style of Bob Fosse (who co-wrote “Chicago”’s book with Ebb and directed the original production), Goodrich’s dances convey a bold, smoldering sexuality, as well as a fluid sensuality; and if there’s one show that demonstrates precisely how seductive a small, controlled movement can be, this is it.
Plus, Goodrich makes sure that this “Chicago” doesn’t collapse beneath the weight of its own cynicism and bleak view of human nature. Instead, the two and a half hour show’s presented as a black (musical) comedy, as signaled by fanciful touches like: Roxie’s entrance on a piano that’s mounted onto a bike (“Funny Honey”); individual musicians occasionally climbing up from the pit to provide visual as well as musical backdrop for a scene; and music director Cynthia Kortman Westphal seemingly enjoying a drink, a cigarette, and some conversation with her pit musicians while the chronically overlooked Amos requests his “leaving music” - without success, naturally.
Executing Goodrich’s vision is a remarkably polished ensemble, with vocal, dancing and acting talent that are second-to-none. Ted Stevenson’s performance of “A Little Bit of Good,” while in the guise of sympathetic reporter Mary Sunshine, is jaw-droppingly good; and Katzman’s fantastic, funny, and moving rendition of “Mister Cellophane” puts the spotlight squarely on - and then off, of course - the show’s most genuine and sympathetic character. McGiffin is charismatic powerhouse, with vocals to match, while Low confidently owns the stage as been-there, done-that Velma. Ultimately, though, the show belongs to Roxie, and Morgan is more than up to the task, delivering a pitch perfect performance, in every way, on opening night.
Westphal’s wonderful music direction yields uniformly clear and well-balanced vocals, and the orchestra provided terrific accompaniment. Guest scenic designer Andrea Bechert provided spare, but perfectly effective, sets for the show’s various locales. Jessica Hahn’s costumes (and Philip Plowman’s wig and makeup design) helped highlight the show’s vaudeville elements, as well as the cynicism and sexuality that lies at its core. Jim Lillie ably provided the show’s sound design; and Mary Clare Blake-Booth and Rob Murphy designed lighting that surrounded the mostly black-clad, often spotlit performers in darkness, emphasizing the collapsed distinction between the shadowy world of crime and the world of entertainment.
For the show takes pains to show us two people who get hurt in substantial ways: Amos, a good-hearted guy who’s hopelessly in love with the wrong woman; and Hungarian prisoner Hunyak (Carlye Tamaren), who is the first woman to be hanged, despite protests of innocence. In the midst of the show’s comedy, Goodrich give these painful moments their due, so that when, at show’s end, Velma and Roxie intone that “We couldn’t have done it without you,” you feel a bit guilty for enjoying yourself quite so much.
But when the razzle dazzle is this good, it’s pretty darn impossible to resist.
The run of "Chicago" is sold out, but a waiting list will begin one hour before each remaining performance, 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, at the Power Center.