BWW Review: CHICAGO is still CHICAGO at SPA Houston
The musical CHICAGO is now forty-four years old if we date it from the Gwen Verdon / Chita Rivera days of its opening. This particular iteration of the show is the revival from 1996 which has been running on Broadway ever since. So here we are twenty-three years later with the same black set, costumes, and "Fosse-inspired" dancing masterminded by Ann Reinking. It feels curatorial now, a gorgeous museum exhibit that we are intrigued by decades later. Society for the Performing Arts opens the hall for musical theater fans to gaze for just six days here in Houston. It's always a fun, sexy ride, and the jazz age vaudeville presentation never disappoints.
If you don't know about the plot after the longest run by an American musical and the 2002 Academy Award winning movie adaptation, I'll try to break it down. In mid 20s Chicago jazz is booming but so is crime. The public has become obsessed with women who have killed their husbands or lovers for various reasons, and the newspapers have made them stars. The current reigning diva of destruction is Velma Kelly who took out her sister and boyfriend when she caught them together. But now Roxie Hart has shot her lover, and is using her poor husband as leverage to get through it. The two gals parade and preen in front of press conferences and court appearances alongside their flashy lawyer Billy Flynn. As an audience we see the whole thing play out as if it were just another vaudeville show with the characters sitting around the stage on chairs as the orchestra in the center plays for them. Instead of a women's prison we're trapped in a show starring criminals and the people who love them.
CHICAGO relies on three leads and the ensemble to carry it off. It is an energetic heavy dance show crammed with familiar Kander and Ebb tunes that most people can hum along to. There are no surprises here, and that may be just grand all things considered. It's not hard to sell a show where women manipulate the media with their fake news stories after gunning down people. It feels just a little too old hat from many angles. You may squirm in your seat when you realize the script was based on some all too real cases from the 1920s that could correlate to current events without any problem.
Dylis Croman plays Roxie Hart, and she has been with CHICAGO for over a decade. She's been Roxie officially for quite a spell, and fans of the TV show SMASH or GUIDING LIGHT may recognize her. She plays this all as homage to Gwen Verdon from the red hair to the kewpie doll vocal delivery. Her performance is solid and well crafted but feels traditional and classic. You can see how tightly controlled her choreography is. In contrast Lana Gordon plays Velma Kelly completely on her own interpretation. Forget the legacy, she's gonna do her own thing. Her dancing is bigger and looser, and she adds a unique voice to all the numbers. She's a gorgeous counterpoint to Roxie throughout. The result is like watching two dueling divas take the stage - one classically trained and the other fresh out of a modern dance class. They carry the show just fine, and turn in the evening's strongest performances. Much has been made of former NFL player Eddie George coming in to this tour as Billy Flynn. He's good and he gets the core of the slick lawyer down pat. His voice is strong in spurts, and wisely the chorus carries the ball for him when needed. He's a charmer, and that's what you need.
The ensemble around these guys is where the secret to where CHICAGO's appeal truly is. The rest of the show is fleshed out by dancers who have studied Bob Fosse and they are excited to show off their prowess. The company is tight, and they never miss a beat throughout the night recreating moves that they have always dreamed about executing. If you're a dance fan this one's a treat and well worth it. Few Broadway shows know how to showcase a great dancer, but this one becomes the rare case that brings you a whole gang. Some standouts of the night include Jennifer Fouche's Mama Morton which is delivered with a full voice and comedic flair. Paul Vogt turns in a heartbreakingly real version of Amos Hart, the beleaguered hubby who imagines nobody sees him. Alexa Jane Lowis also gives a crushingly real performance as Hunyak the Hungarian inmate who believes in the justice of Uncle Sam.
Everything is in fine shape for this tour of CHICAGO, and it plays as safe homage to what has been working in the show now for over forty years. The Society for the Performing Arts run of this should be a standard crowd pleaser that audiences will find familiar and comforting. Anybody looking for innovation or anything other than a celebration of past triumphs is in the wrong auditorium. But if you are looking for a solid cast putting on a tried and true musical theater classic, it's worth the price of admission.
Chicago only runs through June 9th at Jones Hall. Tickets can be found at the SPA Houston website at www.spahouston.org .