BWW Reviews: Keeton's Scintillating and Scandalous CHICAGO Wows 'em in Donelson

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One cannot help but wonder how Maurine Dallas Watkins would react to the musicalization of her 1920s Broadway play, Chicago. It wasn't until well after her death that her executors finally agreed to the concept and allowed Bob Fosse, teaming with John Kander and Fred Ebb, to create the musical that has become as much a part of the American cultural zeitgeist as anything you can think of from the past forty years.

In her later years, Watkins had become a born-again Christian and had steadfastly rebuffed entreaties from Fosse, et al, fearing that her play (which grew out of the sensational newspaper columns that inspired her anti-heroines Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly) glamorized crime, fast-living and the celebrity that often accompanies infamy.

So, while Maurine Dallas Watkins spins in her grave at the overwhelming and continued success of her characters and their stories, we venture to guess that if she had the opportunity to see the production of Chicago now onstage at Donelson's The Keeton Theatre, she might actually relent and give her blessing to the time-honored musical theater classic. Directed and choreographed by Kate Adams-Johnson, who keeps raising the bar for her company of actors with her selection of shows, The Keeton Theatre's Chicago is beautifully staged, winningly produced and inspiringly performed.

In short, Chicago is the best production ever presented by The Keeton Theatre. In fact, it's one of the finest versions of the tuneful musical we've ever seen on any stage, from any Production Company - and trust me, we've seen a bunch of 'em, ranging from Broadway and national touring companies to mountings from academic theaters, professional regional theaters and community playhouses.

Elegantly mounted, with simple but evocative settings by Brad Kamer and the brilliant lighting design by Kelly Landry that gives the show a golden glow (her clever use of the footlights to illuminate the stage action helps transport you to the Windy City during the Roaring '20s) that is perfect for its time period and the rather nostalgic feel of the piece, this production of Chicago also boasts the gorgeous - and spot-on - costume design of Laura Higgins.

It is as if this Chicago has been sprinkled with more than its fair share of fairy dust (lord knows, the fairies fairly dote on Roxie and Velma), or else fate has smiled gratefully and promisingly on Adams-Johnson and her own partner-in-crime, aka musical director Ginger Newman, to ensure that this is a production that virtually demands to be seen.

From the very first moments that Stacie Riggs (playing Velma) and company take the stage to welcome audiences to the show with "All That Jazz," all the way through to the end when the entire ensemble celebrate with jazz-age abandon to "Hot Honey Rag," this Chicago is something very special indeed, featuring a youthful cast so committed to the task at hand and so confident in their abilities that you will find yourself cheering during the curtain calls.

The story of Chicago, in all its sinful, scandalous glory, is presented without any added ruffles and flourishes, Adams-Johnson and Newman relying on the tried and true, using the 1996 Broadway revival as their inspiration, to bring Chicago to the stage for a far more discerning 21st century audience. It succeeds on practically every level, save for a few minor miscues and slight wardrobe malfunctions at the performance reviewed, with the superlative cast giving their all for a shared, common goal: Entertaining the pants off you.

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Suggestive and alluring, rather than overtly sexy and unseemly, The Keeton Theatre's Chicago features the ideal pairing of Tonya Pewitt and Stacie Riggs as Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, the two young actresses playing well against one another, their individual personalities sharply delineating the differences between the two characters with a certain studiEd Grace and more than a little bit of show-business savvy. Pewitt's smile alone ensures that she will capture the heart of everyone within the range of that high-wattage attribute, but it is her sublimely confident take on Roxie that will continue to win her legions of fans and which indicate a far brighter stage future ahead for her. Riggs, as the hard-hearted Velma, displays her own ample charms with a sense of skillful glee, providing Velma with a much-needed foundation of warmth and appeal that makes her drive and ambition all the more palatable for theater-goers. Ultimately, you find yourself cheering for both Roxie and Velma - whether through the fine writing of Kander and Ebb or via the performances of Pewitt and Riggs, although we suspect it's a combination of both factors - to triumph in the face of their very repellant personal stories.

Terry McLemore plays the Chicago shyster Billy Flynn with a devilish glint in his eye that belies Billy's more obvious smarmy charm. With a fresh approach to his character - Billy Flynn is the one character that most willingly begs for new interpretations - McLemore scores both as an actor and as a singer, directing the onstage courtroom action with a finesse enabled by the wealth of his years of stage experience. As Roxie's feckless husband Amos, Joshua Waldrep has a beautiful voice which mellifluously gives his performance of "Mr. Cellophane" additional shadings of comic pathos.As Mama Morton, the matron of the Cook County Jail's women's lock-up, Jamie London is given the opportunity to show off her vocal chops to perfection, her portrayal of the dastardly character fairly dripping with loathing and disgust at the loss of "Class" in jazz-age society. Bobby Milford, playing sob sister Mary Sunshine (Is this character based upon Maurine Dallas Watkins? Perhaps.), is outstanding in the role; sure, there's no doubt he's a man in a dress, but Milford is so focused and his Mary Sunshine so delightfully over-the-top that he sells his performance magnificently.

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Among Adams-Johnson's talented ensemble, you will find a collection of some of Nashville's finest younger performers, many of whom are just now getting their feet wet in local productions, as well as some veterans who've been around for years. The six merry murderesses of Cook County Jail are played provocatively and assuredly by the versatile Hannah McGinley, Stephanie Brooks, Christina Candilora (back onstage in Nashville after a year's sabbatical in the UK), Abigayle Horrell (fresh from her triumph as Val in The Keeton's A Chorus Line), Caitlyn Williams and Tara Carney.  The men's ensemble features the nimble-footed Matt Stewart as Fred Casely and the perfectly cast Tony Nappo as the master of ceremonies, along with Macon Kimbrough, Thomas Harton and BranDon Johnson (who, frankly, does much of the heavy lifting in the various scenes that make up the show). Completing the cast as members of the Women's Ensemble are the titian-tressed McKenna Trammel and the statuesque Laura Crockarill.

Newman conducts a tight band of Music City's most talented musicians, including Lee Druce on keyboards, Ed Greene on drums, Bob Marinelli on bass, Tom McGinley on woodwinds, and Jim Williamson and Brent Baker on trumpet. They provide the perfect accompaniment for the performers, while providing the audience with an auditory adventure through music.

Adams-Johnson's choreography, inspired by Fosse's original, is beautifully rendered and artfully executed by her cast, and her direction of Chicago is her finest onstage offering to date. She deserves all the accolades that are certain to come her way for this show.

Chicago. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watklins. Directed and choreographed by Kate Adams-Johnson. Music direction by Ginger Newman. Presented by The Keeton Theatre, 108 Donelson Pike, Nashville. Through October 1. Visit www.thelarrykeetontheatre.org for details. For reservations, call (615) 883-8375.

photos by Jonathan Pinkerton

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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