BWW Review: CHICAGO IN CONCERT Sizzles with Sin at Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Within the opening minutes of the world premiere of newly orchestrated CHICAGO IN CONCERT, audiences could be forgiven for thinking Kander and Ebb's iconic score had been written in 1924 rather than 1974. The wildly stirring strings soaring over the acrobatic feats of the pianist's hands sound like Broadway by way of Gershwin-a Chicagoan in Paris, if you will. The effect is quite pleasing at first, though one will wonder if the sizzling jazz numbers might become sanitized over the course of the night, middle-brow entertainment in a high-brow outfit, stripped of the heat and near-improvisational fun that have made CHICAGO a mainstay of the theatrical consciousness for almost half a century.
Then the drummer begins to smash away like a madman possessed, the trumpets wail as though stabbed in a back alley, and any fears that might have existed become as fleeting as yesterday's headlines. Simply put, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's CHICAGO IN CONCERT is a thrilling reimagination of a familiar favorite, one that excites with its inventiveness while remaining faithful to the story and sounds audiences have come to hold near and dear to their hearts.
For those who might have missed the Academy Award-winning movie adaptation or the Broadway revival that has been running nonstop for well over twenty years, CHICAGO tells the story of a pair murderous vixens Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, two women as desperate for fame as they are for freedom. After killing her lover in a fit of passion, Roxie meets up with Velma in the Cook County Jail, and the two alternatively work together and fall apart as they work with attorney Billy Flynn to establish their innocence as well as their vaudeville careers.
Bill Elliott's "reimagined, deconstructed" and expanded orchestrations elevate the tone and mood of many of the show's numbers, creating soundscapes that simply cannot be created by a smaller jazz hall band. For example, the expansive string orchestrations provide an air of extravagant elegance to numbers such as "Funny Honey" and "All I Care About." Also, the percussive possibilities of a full symphony have clearly allowed Elliott to have fun outside of a standard drum kit, adding sounds reminiscent of tolling church bells and the clanging of bars in a jail cell. Audience favorites remain as captivating as ever while gaining a compositional complexity that give numbers such as "Cell Block Tango" and "We Both Reached For The Gun" all the clattering, accumulated energy of a speeding train.
The symphony is conducted by the internationally recognized music director Rob Fisher, a man of many talents who has served as arranger and music supervisor for the current revival of CHICAGO as well as many other Tony Award-winning productions. Fisher clearly knows every intricacy of the score, allowing him to conduct with an expert's explosive energy while still having fun with the onstage cast. As previously alluded to, Philip Fortenberry's hands run across the keys as deftly as Velma and Roxie run from a murder conviction, showcasing his prowess while never overpowering or distracting from the work being done by other musicians and soloists. Sean McDaniel takes on what is perhaps one of the most demanding aspects of the concert's score, providing the musical's distinct percussive sounds with passion and youthful energy while driving the beat for an almost nonstop two hours.
As is typical for DSO concerts, the vocalists represent some of the finest talent of their industry, with resumes and careers that represent some of the biggest blockbuster Broadway shows of the last decade, including ANASTASIA, BOOK OF MORMON, and THE CHER SHOW. Matthew Deming is sweetly delightful as Roxie's dull husband Amos Hart, but he particularly impresses with his twinkling countertenor as the sentimental reporter Mary Sunshine, spanning a vocal range only the most accomplished singers can manage. Emily Skinner commands the stage as Matron "Mama" Morton, singing with a suitably jazzy growl in her voice and offering much of the musical's narration in between numbers-a change that allows the audience to focus more on the music and singing than the plot with which they are probably already familiar.
As Billy Flynn, Lewis Cleale oozes charm, seducing spectators with his soothing classical Broadway voice, especially with his appropriately hypnotizing rendition of "Razzle Dazzle." Tari Kelly doesn't play the part of Velma Kelly so much as she inhabits it, making the most of the role that she can outside of a full production. Kelly's voice stretches, vibrates, and smarts like a snapped garter, and there's little question that she has the jazziest pipes of all the vocalists onstage.
As Roxie Hart, Bianca Marroquín proved herself to be the breakout star in a concert full of exceptional talent. According to Fisher, Marroquín has played the role of Roxie in some form or another over 5,000 times. And it shows. Marroquín knows the role so well at this point that she is able to bring an improvisational excitement to the part, riffing through her lines and playing with others on the stage in a way that is both impressive and endearing. Furthermore, Marroquín strikes the perfect balance between singing with exquisite skill and performing with a playful character affectation, showcasing both abilities in numbers both silly and sweet, such as "Funny Honey" and "Me and My Baby."
Admittedly, though, it is worth mentioning that some of the book's more theatrical or choreography heavy moments come across as awkward in the context of a symphony hall. This is especially apparent during dance breaks in Velma's numbers such as "I Can't Do It Alone" and "When Velma Takes the Stand." Kelly attempts to mitigate some of this awkwardness with light dancing of her own, but it almost might be better if the focus stayed on the orchestra during such moments. Additionally, without the benefit of the context of the full show or a fully realized set, the hanging execution of a Hungarian woman falls flat (if you'll forgive the pun). Still, these can be negligible hiccups in an otherwise wildly fun-and funny-party.
This new concert reimagining of CHICAGO, brought to the world for the first time by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, marks an exciting new chapter in the life of one of the most iconic and surprisingly timeless musicals to ever hit the stage. Elliott, Fisher, their talented vocalists, and the professional musicians that make up the DSO provide a sizzling new perspective on a score that shows no signs of growing old. How lucky Dallas is to give birth to a new Chicago.