Review: CHICAGO at The Orpheum Theatre Memphis

Razzle-Dazzling the Orpheum Memphis Stage through April 9th!

By: Apr. 05, 2023
Review: CHICAGO at The Orpheum Theatre Memphis
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Chicago is celebrating 25 dazzling years and it has returned to Memphis! It is certainly a fan favorite, with exhilirating dancing and an iconic story that is known around the world. The 1975 musical with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, is the 2nd longest running Broadway musical (thanks to the 1996 revival), behind fan favorite Phantom of the Opera. The West End revival became the longest-running American musical in West End history, and the show has been performed in Argentina, Australia, France, and Japan, just to name a few. So what is it that makes this musical so special and beloved? To me, seeing Fosse choreography in person is a treat in itself. Your eyes won't know what to focus on and your feet will want to start dancing. The show even has a film adaptation, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2002.

If you have read any of my previous reviews, you'll know that I am a musical theatre history buff. I love learning about the origins of various shows and this one was no different! Chicago came about in an interesting way! In 1924, a reporter and playwright known as Maurine Dallas Watkins was assigned to cover the trials of accused murderesses Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner for the Chicago Tribune. In the 1920's, a lore emerged that attractive females could not be convicted of murder. As in the musical, the Cook County Jail housed many "merry murderesses" but they were nearly always acquitted. Watkins' documentations of these trials proved to be so popular that she wrote a play based on them. The play was mounted on Broadway in 1926 and ran for 172 performances. Several film versions were created and in the 1960's, Gwen Verdon read the play and asked her husband, Bob Fosse, if he could create a musical adaptation. However, when approached by Fosse to buy the rights, Watkins refused. It is said that she regretted that Annan and Gaertner had been acquitted and everyone's treatment of them should not be glamorized. In 1969, upon Watkins's death, her estate sold Fosse the rights, and work began immediately. Kander and Ebb began to create a musical score, making each number a vaudeville-like performance.

The show follows Roxie Hart, who is modeled after Annan and is on trial for murdering her lover. We also see Velma Kelly, who is based on cabaret singer Belva Gaertner, as she awaits her trial for murdering both her husband and her sister. The two women are instantly competitors, as they are both vying for the attention and assistance of laywer Billy Flynn. Anyone who has seen the show knows that Velma is a vital character, almost as vital as Roxie. So it came as a shock to me to learn that Velma was originally a minor character. The opening cast, however, starred Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly opposite Gwen Verdon as Roxie. The role of Velma needed to balance the two roles and thus we have the two sassy murderesses we know and love today.

Logan Floyd commands the audience's attention as Velma in the opening number, "All that Jazz". With Floyd's and the ensemble's fluid Fosse movements, we are introduced to the world of jazz and sin. When Floyd is on stage, we are not looking anywhere else, with their bold movements, especially during Velma's number "I Can't Do It Alone".

Oppsite Floyd is Roxie Hart, portrayed by Katie Frieden, who proves to be a promising competitor to Velma. Frieden's soft tones are appreciated during her first number, "Funny Honey" but later in the show we see that she has some chops on her! One of my favorite numbers in Act II, "Nowadays", is when Velma and Roxie reunite and prove to be a dynamic duo on the stage. Floyd and Frieden do a great job maintaining that very thin line of a relationship.

Two other important characters to the journey of both of these women is, of course Billy Flynn, portrayed by Jeff Brooks, as well as Matron "Mama" Morton, the comedic warden of Cook County Jail. Christina Wells commands all attention as soon as she enters the stage, and treats audiences to a vocal treat the entire time she sings. Everyone loves the iconic number "When You're Good to Mama", but I have to commend Wells and Floyd on an excellent job during the slower number "Class". I love this song so much because these two obviously angry women are sitting, poised and proper, and talking about the "snakes in the grass" of the world. Floyd's and Wells's voices blended beautifully and made it an enjoyable number to witness, even though they were merely sitting in chairs the whole time.

I'll use this mention of "Class" to take a moment to beg of you, theatre goers, put. your. phones. away. There is nothing worse than being immersed in the world that the performers are putting on, only to be yanked away by someone texting right beside you. Have some CLASS and stay off the phones. ;)

Jeff Brooks plays the silver-tongued laywer Billy Flynn on a line between arrogance and charm. Another of my favorite numbers, "We Both Reached for the Gun", shows how Billy is effectively controlling Roxie's actions and words, like a puppeteer. It's a fun number to watch and the ensemble as well as Mary Sunshine (portrayed by G.A James) all bring it together beautifully. Personally it was hard for me to actually like the character of Billy Flynn because Brooks played him as a "slimy laywer".

One of the most pleasant surprises of the night was when Brian Kalinowski commanded the stage as Amos Hart. The character of Amos is often forgotten, pushed to the background, even invisible at times, prompting his iconic number "Mister Cellophane". Kalinowski plays Amos so that we sympathize with the jilted husband, even providing a lot of the comic relief of the show. Indeed, I heard a lot of "awws" coming from the audience after his number.

Shout outs go to the ensemble as well as the live orchestra. This is a difficult show to put on and most of the performers play multiple characters on stage. They all do a wonderful job maintaining the atmosphere of the 1920's while wowing us with Fosse choreography.

What is most interesting to me is how Chicago did an even better job during its revival. In 1976, it was nominated for ten Tony Awards but lost to A Chorus Line. However, fast forward to 1996, when the revival hit Broadway, it swept the 1997 Tony Awards. It was nominated for eight Tonys, winning six of them, including Best Revival of a Musical. It even went on to win the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. I suppose the world just wasn't ready for Roxie and Velma during the 1970's.

All in all, Chicago is a fun night out. The songs are catchy and as Mama Morton says, "murder is entertainment". Along with fun Fosse dances, the show consists of liquor, crime, music...

and all that jazz!


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