BWW Reviews: Shadowbox Live Shows Plenty of 'Razzle Dazzle' in CHICAGO
It's been a Broadway favorite since it's 1975 opening, and the Academy Award winning 2012 movie version did little to detract from its fame, but if you weren't fascinated with Chicago's musical tale of sex, lies, and corruption before now, Shadowbox Live's stellar cast will definitely give you enough of the ol' "Razzle Dazzle" to make you a fan.
The roaring 20's are brought to life with a bang, well several actually, as Master of Ceremonies, BranDon Anderson introduces the audience to vaudevillian Velma Kelley (Stacie Boord), made famous more for the murder of her husband and sister, having caught them in an affair, than her talent as a performer. The always fabulous Boord is a force to be reckoned with as Velma Kelly, and again brings all of the sultry, sassy, energy Shadowbox Live fans are well acquainted with from her past performances, coupled with one of the best voices on any local stage in a captivating opening number of "All That Jazz". The simple, yet functional set, and gorgeous 20's costumed back-up dancers (Edelyn Parker, Nikki Fagin, Kara Wilkinson, and Renee Horton) are just enough eye candy to draw you in to the tale of chorus girl murderess Roxie Hart (Amy Lay).
Hart has murdered nightclub regular Fred Casely (Tom Cardinal), and convinces her love struck and gullible husband Amos (Robbie Nance) to take the blame, until he wises up and realizes that Hart and Casely were engaged in an affair. The talented Amy Lay as Hart delivers a naïve, ditzy, but conniving performance as she sings the praises of her husband's dim wit in "Funny Honey", but once he learns the truth, it's off to the Cook County Jail for Hart, where she meets Velma Kelly and a gang of murderesses (Nikki Fagin, Renee Horton, Edelyn Parker, Anita McFarren, and Kara Wilkinson) in "The Cell Block Tango". One of the best staged numbers of the night, each of the women describes their tails of murder and woe and pleads their innocence. The jailhouse girls are some of Shadowbox's best and brightest starlets, as must be the case to take the stage with Boord and Lay fronting, are all superb in their own rights, as well, and this number was captivating. Heading up the cell block is the corrupt Matron Mama Morton (Mary Randle) who makes a living offering mutual aid to her charges as described in "When You're Good to Mama". Randle is superb vocally in this steamy little number and sets the necessary undertone of evil and seduction while flanked by four pantless cop dancers (Jim Andres, Eli Rousculp, Austin Shannon, and J. Robert Raines). This is Morton at her finest, as Randle's delivery throughout the rest of the show appears almost tender at times, and is a little more Miss Hannigan than Cruella DeVille, though Randle is phenomenally good vocally in every performance. We learn that Morton has helped Velma Kelly stage a return to the vaudeville spotlight through the use of spin-pro shyster Billy Flynn (JT Walker III) as her attorney. Velma is immediately unhappy to find that Roxie has stolen her media stage, and even more dismayed to find she has stolen her lawyer, though Flynn assures the girls, "All I Care About is Love". JT Walker III is arguably one of Shadowbox's best male dancer/singers, and he positively shines as the slippery, controlling, paparazzi pleaser.
Flynn takes Roxie's case after she convinces Amos to pay him to defend her, and Flynn sets to work re-arranging the facts of the case to give sympathetic tabloid author Mary Sunshine (Stephanie Shull) all she needs to have the public feeling so sorry for Hart that an acquittal is guaranteed with "A Little Bit of Good". Schull is wonderful in her over-the-top sweetness and naïveté, ever searching for the silver lining in the stories of the jailhouse row murderesses. In another standout performance of the evening, Flynn uses Hart as a ventriloquist dummy during her press conference with "We Both Reached For The Gun" to create a new version of the truth that the press eats up. This number is craftily choreographed in puppeteer-like precision with Flynn clearly pulling the strings of not only Hart and the press, but the audience as well, as you can not help but follow the ensemble's every move. Delighted with the success of her delusion, Roxie dreams of realizing her vaudeville stardom in "Roxie", taking center stage in all her glory with Lay delivering a completely stunning performance.
With Roxie stealing her thunder, Velma is left to the realization that "I Can't Do It Alone" and in a little too much desperation, Velma pleads with Roxie to recreate her sister act as her partner. Cocky from her recent headline attention, Roxie refuses, only to find she has been replaced in the media by a new sensational killer. Each woman realizes, "I Am My Own Best Friend", and Roxie concocts a new scheme, proclaiming that she is pregnant, to garner more media attention.
Act II opens to Boord's saucy, "Hello, Suckers," followed by an equally saucy rendition of "I Know a Girl" in which Velma laments Roxie's continued rise to fame amidst her own decline in the spotlight. Meanwhile, clamoring for the public eye a bit more, Lay launches into the odd little "Me and My Baby", made even more comical by the decision to back her with three adult men in diapers and bonnets. While vocally pretty, this classic tune performed this way just seemed too much fluff and interrupted the plotline. With Amos proudly proclaiming his paternity (until he later does the math and realizes there's no way the baby could be his), he hopes to join Roxie in the headlines, but no one notices the misfit mechanic. Robbie Nance's fabulous "Mister Cellophane" draws more than a few pitiful "Awww…."s from the audience as a downtrodden Amos realizes that Roxie is stringing him along as much as the paparazzi.
Velma, eager to get to trial and regain her fame, tries to impress Billy with her planned courtroom dramatics in "When Velma Takes the Stand", but is dismayed to learn that her trial date has been moved back as Roxie's case takes precedence. Getting more self-inflated by the minute, Roxie fires Billy, until fellow inmate Hunyak (Anita McFarren) is convicted and hung, causing Roxie a change of heart.
Billy Flynn promises that if Roxie just gives the courtroom a show, a little "Razzle Dazzle", she'll be fine, and proceeds to lay out all of the tricks she should use- the exact ones Velma had planned. In one of the best numbers of the evening, and to thunderous applause, Randle's Mama Morton and Boord's Velma lament the lack of "Class" in even the underhanded doings of judicial manipulation Flynn and Hart have demonstrated. These two veteran Shadowbox performers light up the stage and clearly demonstrate why Shadowbox has been, and continues to be, home to some of the most talented performers around, with show-stopping brilliance. Billy gets Roxie an acquittal, but her joy is momentary as another newsworthy crime steals the press from her afterglow, leaving Roxie with the realization that her 5 minutes of fame have long passed. Even Amos deserts her upon learning she has faked the pregnancy, and life "Nowadays" isn't quite what Roxie had planned. In the end, Roxie is left with the also-acquitted Velma performing a new act together with a reprise of "All That Jazz".
The casting of Shadowbox's ensemble is spot on for this show, as Boord and Lay are brilliant in their respective roles, perfectly showcasing the talent powerhouses that they both are. Mary Randle as Matron Morton is also a fabulous casting choice, JT Walker III as Billy Flynn gives one of my favorite performances of his to date, and Robbie Nance is quite reminiscent of the spectacular Joel Gray who starred as Amos Hart on Broadway. The cast is rounded out nicely by BranDon Anderson's take as Master of Ceremonies with his own comedic bits thrown in, and the so-understated-you-forget-how-tremendously-talented-they-are but none-the-less phenomenal performances of Renee Horton, Nikki Fagin, Evelyn Parker, Kara Wilkinson, and Anita McFerrin. At times, there is so much star power onstage that it is difficult to decide where to cast your eyes. Make no mistake, the "Razzle Dazzle" that Shadowbox delivers is no ruse, but rather the manifestation of Columbus' finest talent machine and the Roaring 20's gone Brewery District have never been better.
"Chicago" runs at The Shadowbox Live theater located at 503 S. Front StreetColumbus, Ohio43215 on Sundays at 2pm and 7pm now through November 11th. Go to: http://www.shadowboxlive.org/ for tickets and additional information.
Photo courtesy of Shadowbox Live.