BWW Reviews: CHICAGO Brings 'All That Jazz' to Allenberry Playhouse
CHICAGO is a musical that's burdened by the weight of its expectations. From the classic score by Kander and Ebb, to Bob Fosse's legendary choreography, to the original cast of Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach, and to the modern casting of Ann Reinking, of Joel Grey, of John O'Hurley, and of Charlotte d'Amboise, everything about it is mythic. Even the award-winning movie version is considered a poor adaptation of the actual play – what about it isn't too much to handle?
Roque Berlanga, Allenberry's young artistic director, wasn't intimidated by the CHICAGO mythos, and we are fortunate for that. You won't mistake this production for the current Broadway version, but you'll be glad that you went. Despite the limitations of Allenberry's small stage that made ensemble dancing seem just slightly cramped, this production should stop the question of "what's Allenberry and where is it, anyway?" that theater lovers from other counties have asked before.
The show opens with the ever-popular "All That Jazz," sung by Sara Brophy playing the irrepressible showgirl-murderess Velma Kelly. Sara Brophy is a real find for Allenberry and I'd love to see her in more shows there; her Velma is a take-no-prisoners firebrand throughout the show who really can dance as well as sing. Her turns on stage, especially with Katie McCreary's cheerfully mercenary Matron "Mama" Morton, are worth the price of admission.
The heart, or lack thereof, of CHICAGO, of course, is the two-timing chorine Roxie Hart. Andrea Rouch's Roxie has all the right stuff, but the two times she lets it all out are in her performances of "We Both Reached For the Gun" and the delightfully self-aggrandizing "Roxie". Her Roxie in "We Both Reached For the Gun" is a joy for the audience as she plays a ventriloquist's dummy on lawyer Billy Flynn's (John Heinis) lap. Her head motions and eyeball-rolling as the dummy left the audience laughing as she mouthed Billy's script explaining the course of events leading to the murder. "Roxie," of course, is the character's star turn, and she sold herself successfully – the audience did indeed love her for loving them.
John Heinis gives a fine turn as Billy Flynn, the lawyer who swears that "all he cares about is love"… and a fully paid retainer. Flynn's working his way through "Mama" Morton's celebrity murderesses based on the degree of news coverage of their crimes and the amount of retainer received makes him the perfect example of the modern celebrity criminal lawyer, and Heinis' Flynn is as greedy, exploitative, and well-dressed as they come. He is in many ways the perfect partner for his best client recruiter, "Mama" Morton herself.
Sean Riley's Amos Hart is convincing as the down-at-the-heels, slow-on-the-uptake Everyman that has the misfortune to be married to Roxie, and the audience can't help sympathizing with him, especially at the end.
CHICAGO is one of those musicals where almost every number is well-known in its own right. That includes its ensemble numbers, particularly the "Cell Block Tango". The murderess ensemble, including major celebrity double-murderess Velma, put their not-guilty hearts and souls into it, with the audience thrilled to hear the stories of the crimes the women on the cell block most certainly did not commit. The number could have been improved by a slightly more even sound level, but all of the band of killers gave their stories of death and desperation everything they could, even Hunyak the Hungarian (Caitlin Evans), the extent of whose English was "not guilty!" Here, too, Brophy's Velma Kelly came through, luridly detailing the double-homicide that made her the stuff of the city papers and the imprisoned toast of the town.
A special mention needs to be made of Allenberry's Mary Sunshine, K. Roets, whose dulcet soprano tones make the radio news of Roxie Hart's plight so moving to listeners. North Carolina School of the Arts has turned out some very fine musical theatre performers, and this performer is no exception.
The dancing feels a bit constrained in this production, which may, as noted, be due at least in part to Allenberry's notably small stage. Choreographer Dann Dunn's arranging of the show certainly allows for dancers to give it their best shot despite that limitation, and Sara Brophy most definitely does just that. I hope to see more of her, if not at Allenberry alone, then in the region.
Mention must also be made of the fine job done by the orchestra, which is on stage for the duration of the show. I could not be more satisfied with a show's musical performance than I am here.
To be honest, I was slightly apprehensive about CHICAGO at Allenberry before going to see it. Granted, this is not the Ambassador Theatre, and I was hardly expecting Fosse's choreography or D'Amboise's or Reinking's interpretation of it on the stage. But I had not been to Allenberry for several years, and I was, based on prior experiences, somewhat afraid of being disappointed. The baggage that the show carries with it is sufficient that I was afraid that Allenberry Playhouse would have some serious issues with carrying it off.
However, it seems to be a new day at Allenberry – the season's offerings slightly fresher than in the past, the staging more ambitious, the cast of a uniformly rewarding caliber, and there seems to be a willingness to take on some new challenges – one of which is the challenge of producing a show like CHICAGO – and a desire to succeed at them. Undoubtedly, Allenberry has done just that, and I hope to see this trend continue. Much credit must be given to artistic director Roque Berlanga for pushing the envelope. A continued effort at freshening the seasonal show offerings and at this more ambitious staging can only be a good thing for Allenberry. May we hope for a production of Michael Frayn's NOISES OFF in an upcoming season given the staging developments?
CHICAGO is at Allenberry Playhouse, Boiling Springs, until September 16. For tickets, go to www.allenberry.com or call 800-430-5468.
Photo Credit: MDT Photo
CORRECTION: I am reliably informed that K Roets did in fact lip-synch Mary Sunshine's singing to an offstage vocal by Katie McCreary ("Mama" Morton). This correction made, I still congratulate Allenberry's Mary Sunshine for a fine performance as the intrepid girl reporter.