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BWW REVIEW: NSMT's Swanky New CHICAGO Is a Real Killer

Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse; music by John Kander; lyrics by Fred Ebb; based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins; directed and choreographed by Nick Kenkel; music direction, Dale Rieling; scenic design, Evan A. Bartoletti; costume design, Paula Peasley-Ninestein; lighting design, Andrew David Ostrowski; sound design, Christopher M. Evans; hair and wig design, Gerard Kelly; production stage manager, John Godbout and Phill Madore

Cast in Order of Appearance:

Velma Kelly, Bahiyah Hibah; Roxie Hart, Heather Parcells; Fred Casely, Kit Treece; Sergeant Fogarty, Tripp Hampton; Amos Hart, Nick Kohn; Liz, Gaby Gamache; Annie, Elyse Niederee; June, Sissy Bell; Hunyak, Lauralyn McClelland; Mona, Sara Andreas; Matron "Mama" Morton, Liz McCartney; Billy Flynn, Sean McDermott; Mary Sunshine, C. Simmons; Go-to-Hell Kitty, Paula Caselton; Harry, Ian Campayno; Doctor, Kit Treece; Aaron, Tim McGarrigal; The Judge, Devin L. Roberts; Bailiff, Cameron Burke; Martin Harrison, Tripp Hampton; Court Clerk, Michael Graceffa; The Jury, Ian Campayno, Lauralyn McClelland, Tim McGarrigal

Performances and Tickets:

Show ends Sunday, October 5 at 2 p.m.; tickets are $50-$75 and are available online at www.nsmt.org or by calling the Box Office at 978-232-7200.

Director and choreographer Nick Kenkel (2011's Legally Blonde) has swept through the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass. like a breath of fresh autumn air with his inventive, delightful, and often surprising production of CHICAGO: A Musical Vaudeville. With a less stylized concept than Bob Fosse's 1975 original or the current long-running Tony Award-winning Walter Bobbie-Ann Reinking revival, Kenkel has injected a relaxed playfulness into his staging that invites the audience to visit this familiar killer musical anew.

The story, of course, is the same. Beautiful murderesses Velma Kelly (an athletic Bahiyah Hibah) and Roxie Hart (the delicious Heather Parcells) vie for headlines and the services of the slick and savvy lawyer Billy Flynn (the dapper Sean McDermott) during the turbulent Roaring Twenties in Chicago. With an assist from their scheming prison warden Matron "Mama" Morton (the formidable Liz McCartney) and the Pollyanna-ish newspaper columnist Mary Sunshine (C. Simmons), the ladies escape the hangman's noose and go on to razzle-dazzle their adoring fans as newfound celebrities of vaudeville.

What's new is Kenkel's keen attention to detail that translates into vibrant new interpretations of choreography and costumes. For "Cell Block Tango," for example, Kenkel partners each of the six jailed murderesses with beefy male prison guards, turning every "he had it coming" confessional into an actual series of hot and sexy tangoes. The ladies' skimpy blue inmate blouses and even skimpier black bottom-hugging skirts and tights match their counterparts' form fitting blue shirts and black pants. The overall effect is a steamy re-enactment of each woman's climactic moment of revenge.

Kenkel also spins Flynn's Rudy Vallée-style "All I Care About (Is Love)" on its ear by having a bevy of baby doll beauties dress rather than undress him throughout the number. The suggestion is that he has already spent the night with these lovelies and is now happily headed to court to work his magic on behalf of even more not-so-innocent women.

Song after song in this CHICAGO is staged with imagination and flair. "We Both Reached for the Gun" eschews the expected dummy on the ventriloquist's knee routine for a more dynamic reinvention that affords an unobstructed view from all corners of NSMT's theater in the round. "Roxie" has Parcells performing as if she's the toast of the town in a famous nightclub, flirting with the band and tossing off snappy adlibs directed at nearby patrons. "Mr. Cellophane," Amos Hart's dolorous diatribe about being invisible to Roxie and everyone else who crosses his path, adds real passersby who give new meaning to the lyrics "walk right through him" and "pass right by him." And a song that often seems like a throwaway novelty number, "Me and My Baby," becomes an all-out showstopper when Roxie is joined by a parade of male Baby Snookses pushing their own strollers and dancing up a storm.

From top to bottom, this production of CHICAGO has a first-rate cast that delivers the goods. Parcells as Roxie is a spark plug from the get go full of bravado one minute and feigning penitence the next. Her comic timing in "Funny Honey" and "Me and My Baby" is perfection, and her lithe and slender body moves in ways that would make Donna McKechnie proud. As Velma, Hibah does yeoman's work leading the company in "All That Jazz" and "Cell Block Tango." When she does it alone in "I Can't Do It Alone" it's hard to believe that she really is doing it alone.

McDermott cuts a dashing figure as the unscrupulous but affable mouthpiece Billy Flynn. He has just the right amount of infuriating masculine swagger tempered by a lady-killing 100-watt smile. He's also an excellent song and dance man who maneuvers his way through the tricky "We Both Reached for the Gun" and "Razzle Dazzle" with effortless charm.

McCartney is a fun-loving Mama Morton who sashays her way with a wink and a smile through the suggestive "When You're Good to Mama." Paired with Velma for the cleverly satiric "Class," she is the gin to Hibah's vermouth in a very easy to swallow dry martini.

Although Nick Kohn as Amos at first seems too well put together to be a convincing sad sack, he later gains the lion's share of sympathy, suffering one rejection after another first at the hands of the manipulative Flynn and then by his wife Roxie. As the ever-cheerful Mary Sunshine, C. Simmons nearly shatters glass with her ultra-soprano paean to human nature "A Little Bit of Good."

Dale Rieling's 11-piece orchestra is jazzy, bluesy, and full of 1920s razzmatazz. Paula Peasley-Ninestein's brightly colored and imaginative costumes evoke the devil-may-care style of the era while also firmly planting a sartorial tongue in the show's celebrity worshiping cheek. Scenic and lighting designers Evan A. Bartoletti and Andrew David Ostrowski join forces to create flashing marquees that add glitz and glamour to the vaudeville motif, while sound designer Christopher M. Evans charges the proceedings with perfectly timed audio effects that hark back to the days of radio plays and the Keystone Cops.

Director Kenkel and North Shore Music Theatre have achieved the unexpected with CHICAGO. They have reinvented and improved upon a classic, adding large doses of cheeky fun to a show that has always sizzled.

PHOTOS BY PAUL LYDEN: Heather Parcells as Roxie Hart and Bahiyah Hibah as Velma Kelly; the cast of CHICAGO; Sean McDermott as Billy Flynn and Heather Parcells; Bahiyah Hibah and Liz McCartney as Matron "Mama" Morton; Heather Parcells


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