BWW Reviews: Austin Playhouse 'Razzle Dazzles' with CHICAGO
On Friday, May 29th, I was lucky enough to see Austin Playhouses production of CHICAGO, directed by Michael McKelvey, choreographed by Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique. A tale of fame, fortune, sex and murder in the Jazz Age, CHICAGO is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.
Right out of the gate, the cast absolutely wowed with a positively electric performance of "All That Jazz". In the role of Velma Kelly, Rachel James was a fresh and far more youthful take on the sassy murderess, Velma Kelly. Ms. James certainly has a sense of nuance and fire for this role, and even though at times she would lack a bit of smoothness in her tumbling, she would make up for it in character delivery. Every move was spiced with honest character portrayal, and she was a joy to watch.
The Roxy and Velma scenes were most certainly dirty fun, and Sara Burke has the flavor of sharp worldliness needed for the character of Roxie Hart. Ms. Burke is brilliant in this role, and if I had any criticism, it would be perhaps that she is too worldly and smart...but not smart in the same way that one would expect of a cold-blooded killer. Roxie has a chilling air of overindulgent insanity and decadent pleasure that should be present within the character (think back to story of "Fatty" Arbuckle in the roaring 20's), but Ms. Burke plays this femme fatale almost a bit too sensibly. Burke has an intelligent (also youthful) take on Roxie. But I think this is just fine, because she is the newcomer to our favorite Cell Block. I do, however, wish that the tempo weren't taken so fast on the sexy iconic number, "Roxie", as Ms. Burke wasn't completely allowed to take her time to show the full range of maniacal character indulgence. But there is no doubt that Sara Burke is a fast-rising star in Austin and is certainly a career to watch.
Undeniably, "Cell Block Tango" is always an audience favorite. But these particular merry murderesses were especially stunning. Though Hunyak's Hungarian lyrics had a recognizable sense of American bumpiness and lacked authenticity, it was still truly brilliant, and each of the actors had such a well thought-out, entirely distinctive and beautifully executed character.
Huck Huckaby was certainly sophisticated in the role of Billy Flynn and embodies that signature style of the 1920's, but was missing the vital element of sex, sassiness, greasiness, and multi-faceted edge. Mr. Huckaby plays Flynn far too dry, and though he has a full voice with strength, control, breath support and a beautiful timbre, we just didn't get the full spectrum of this character. An actor within this role needs to almost have that sense in which we feel that he is capable of running his own one-man show; a man of many faces and voices. This becomes evident in the number, "We Both Reached for the Gun", in which Billy is literally operating Roxie as a hand puppet. In no way did we hear enough contrast between his voice and that of the Roxie "puppet" voice. This needed to be over-the-top and bordering on the absurd, but Mr. Huckaby just wasn't able to go far enough.
Standout performances included Brandon Rogers as Mary Sunshine, and Jacqui Cross as Mama Morton. A surprising young counter-tenor, Mr. Rogers was sublime. Though this role should be (and usually is) played by an older actor, he sang it brilliantly with alarming ease. If Mr. Rogers were considering a future in Baroque opera as a counter-tenor, he'd make a killing. And as Mama, Ms. Cross delivers a commanding performance. Though she was perhaps a bit too warm and maternal, lacking that hardened sense of lechery in "When You're Good to Mama", she is always a joy to watch in any role she portrays.
The surprise standout of the evening came from a role that one would never expect. Scott Shipman plays the role of Amos Hart, Roxie's poor, naïve schlub of a husband. When Mr. Shipman first walks onstage, one's first thought is that it would be hard to imagine such a tall chap as being "transparent" and easily taken advantage of. But I must say that this was the most effective portrayal of Amos that I will ever witness. Every member of the audience completely fell in love with him, and he knew exactly how to fashion every move, every nuance, and got laughs that I didn't even realize the role could get. In all honesty, I have never liked the song "Mr. Cellophane," but Mr. Shipman completely made this role his very own and this signature song was nothing short of amazing. Every word, every dynamic choice was dead-on. And Shipman got such a huge audience reaction upon leaving stage after this moment for a very good reason. Mr. Shipman...you are anything but transparent. Well-played, sir.
Topping it all off, I must mention how sharp this ensemble was, thanks to the brilliant choreography of Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique. There are few things in this world more electrifying than watching an ensemble so beautifully rehearsed and polished to the point of perfection. The same can be said of the music direction, led by Lyn Koenning, and the band led by Austin Haller.
As a whole, this cast might have been a tad bit more youthful, modern and sophisticated, lacking a bit of worldliness, dirtiness and brass. But I can say that this is one of the best productions that I've seen of this show. I highly recommend catching some of the old "Razzle Dazzle" before it closes at the end of the month.
Austin Playhouse's CHICAGO will be playing now through June 28th at The Austin Playhouse, 6001 Airport Blvd, Austin, TX 78752. Performances are Friday, May 29th - Sunday, June 28th, with Thurs-Sat evening performances beginning at 8pm, and Sunday performances beginning at 5pm. Tickets start at $20. For tickets and information, please visit http://www.austinplayhouse.com/ or call 512-476-0084.