BWW Reviews: Half and Half's CHICAGO Reinvigorates a Classic
"Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery-all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts." So begins the classic Kander and Ebb musical, Chicago. Of course, there are some other things that we hold near and dear to our hearts, such as pitch perfect voices, showy choreography, imaginative staging, and a good rum and coke. Thankfully, all are present and accounted for in Half and Half's current production of Chicago. Whether you've seen the show or the Oscar-winning movie before, you owe it to yourself to see this uniquely immersive production.
Chicago, the hit show about two jazz age murderesses who capitalize on their infamy and notoriety, has never been this smoky, steamy, sexy, or stylish. The production is hands down the most fun I've had in a theater so far this year (possibly ever), but it's not in a theater at all.
Co-directors M. Scott Tatum and Julie Wright have opted to stage their production in a bar instead of a traditional theater space. The venue, Maggie Mae's Gibson Lounge, is the perfect setting as it evokes the feel of a 1920s speakeasy. Every inch of the space is utilized to pull the audience into the action and the story. Characters make entrances and exits from the audience, flirt with the crowd, and even sit at the bar to listen to solo numbers. The distinct space puts the audience in close proximity to the performers and creates an entirely immersive experience.
While the space may be the most memorable feature of the production, it's really just the icing on the cake. If the same production was transplanted into a traditional theater, it would still be a fantastic show; with the inventive space, it's in a class of its own. The 8 piece jazz ensemble, under the direction of John Vander Gheynst, sounds superb, and Brazie Adamez's choreography is full of Broadway razzle dazzle. Her take on "Cell Block Tango," featuring a one man ensemble (Tyler Cullen) as the husbands/victims of the six merry murderesses, is particularly fun and eye-catching. The shadowy, nightclub style lighting (courtesy of co-director Tatum) and the costumes by Becca Fruthaler help to create a seedy atmosphere.
The creative team certainly sets the bar high, as does the cast. Kimberley Wilson gives the character of Roxie, the adulterous wannabe vaudeville star, a bubbly personality. But there's a deviously sharp mind buried underneath Roxie's blonde hair, and sparks fly in the moments where Wilson shows how cunning Roxie can be. As Velma, Leslie Hollingsworth once again shows that she's a gifted triple threat. Hollingsworth's energetic rendition of "I Can't Do it Alone" is a showstopper, as is her sultry take on "All That Jazz. " She also finds a few moments to break down her character's tough-as-nails exterior to show some vulnerability and desperation.
The supporting cast is equally as strong. Tyler Jones plays Roxie's often ignored husband, Amos, with an innocent charm, and he sells his big number better than anyone else I've seen in the role. Chelsea Manasseri, while a bit younger than her character of Mama Morton calls for, has the perfect lounge singer voice and stage presence needed for the role, and Joe Hartman is hilarious as the reporter, Mary Sunshine.
But the biggest surprise is Leslie Hethcox as Billy Flynn, the sleazy defense lawyer. There's no denying that Hethcox is a fantastic performer, but he's often cast in character roles that call for someone of his comedic talents. Seeing him in the leading man role of Billy Flynn is a refreshing change of pace which shows that Hethcox gifts extend farther than the ability to land a joke. He's a true showman, and it's nice to see him in a role where more of his talents are put to use.
Like their 2013 production of Passing Strange, Chicago is an astonishingly entertaining evening which proves that Half and Half Productions is a new theater company to watch. Three guys named Kander, Ebb, and Fosse would be proud.
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
CHICAGO, produced by Half and Half Productions, plays the Gibson Lounge at Maggie Mae's (323 E. 6th St, Austin 78701) now thru June 1st. Performances are Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm and Fridays at 6pm. Tickets are $25-35. For tickets and information, please visit www.halfandhalfproductions.org