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BWW Review: CHICAGO Razzles and Dazzles at the Stratford Festival

Review: CHICAGO Razzles and Dazzles at the Stratford Festival

The Company is Firing on all Cylinders in this Spectacular Donna Feore re-imagining of the Fosse, Kander, and Ebb hit show


Stratford Festival audiences have been waiting a while for some 'razzle dazzle' and we finally got it when, after being sidelined by the pandemic in 2020, CHICAGO had its much-anticipated opening at the Festival Theatre exactly 47 years to the day the original production opened on Broadway! This production, directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, was well worth the wait. With incredible music, innovative and ambitious design and choreography, and dazzling performances from the entire company, this show is sure to be a hit with audiences all season long.

In this current moment in society where a healthy dose of cynicism and humour is essentially required to simply get through the day, the themes of this musical seem more than fitting. What's more, the show as a whole offers an entertaining escape for audiences who have been craving just that for quite some time. Last night's audience could not contain their enthusiasm when Velma Kelly (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) made her grand entrance at the beginning of 'All That Jazz' (possibly the best entrance this stage has ever seen, I may add!) and with Kander & Ebb hit after hit sung and danced to perfection by every single member of this company, that enthusiasm only grew.

When it was first announced in pre-pandemic times that the Stratford Festival would be taking on CHICAGO, much was made about how it would need to be adapted for the Festival Theatre's thrust stage, thus granting Director/Choreographer Donna Feore with a unique opportunity to re-imagine this show. Some audience members will be intimately familiar with the Bob Fosse (and Gwen Verdon) choreography that the original Broadway show and its currently running revival are known for, and many others will not. With this production, it is evident that Feore has taken great care to both honour some of those classic Fosse stylings in moments where it is particularly memorable, while at the same time, never being held back or limited by what already exists and truly making this production her own. One key difference between this production and the one currently playing on Broadway is that this production is not afraid to be ambitious with props and gimmicks. The payoff is fantastic, as it emphasizes the 'circus-like' nature of the story. Although there was no literal tightrope in this particular 'circus' it often-times felt like this company was walking a tightrope (in the best possible way). With the size of the company and the feats they are required to pull off, there are quite frankly, so many little things that could go wrong....But they did it anyways...And this feels like the ultimate triumph for a show that had to wait so long to finally happen!

CHICAGO tells the story of Roxie Hart - the Vaudeville wannabe who winds up in jail after murdering Fred Casely (A fantastic Chad McFadden) - a man she is having an affair with. While there, she garners the fame she had always sought when lawyer Billy Flynn (Dan Chameroy) helps spin her case into the type of entertainment that the easily-manipulated media is clamouring for. All the while, former Vaudeville star Velma Kelly (Rider-Shaw) tries desperately to cling to her own fame while Roxie starts to steal all her attention.

Chelsea Preston is compelling in their Stratford debut as Roxie. They are utterly captivating during the opening monologue of 'Roxie' and shine alongside the brilliant ensemble during the number. And don't even get me started on the hilariously magical way they say the word "Kimono" in the courtroom scene. I could write a dissertation on it!

Festival veteran Jennifer Rider-Shaw is exquisite as Velma - commanding the stage from the top of the show with her brassy vocals and stunning dance, whilst highlighting the character's sultry cynicism one moment and comedic vulnerability the next. A prime example of this is her performance in 'I Can't Do it Alone' when Velma tries to convince Roxie to join her double act. It was 10 years ago that Rider-Shaw made her Stratford Festival principal character debut as ingenue Peggy Sawyer in 42ND STREET and seeing her now as a seasoned veteran of the stage playing a seasoned veteran of the stage is an incredibly satisfying full-circle moment.

The dynamic between Roxie and Velma is complicated and fun and Preston and Rider-Shaw have fantastic chemistry both as antagonists throughout the show and when they come together at the end with their charismatic and perfectly in-synch performance of the 'Hot Honey Rag'.

This production boasts so many outstanding performances: Steve Ross was quite possibly born to play Amos Hart. I'm not sure I have ever seen a performer wrap an audience so tightly around his finger than Mr. Ross does in this show. Dan Chameroy is charming and suave as lawyer Billy Flynn; R. Markus is the perfect Mary Sunshine; and Sandra Caldwell sizzles in her Stratford debut as a brassy, saucy, take-no-bs Matron Mama Morton.

And then there is the ensemble. You would be hard-pressed to find a more skilled and talented group of performers anywhere, and each and every one of these incredible artists has a moment to shine in this show. Special shoutout to Bonnie Jordan (Hunyak) who performs a beautifully heartbreaking ribbon act.

This season, the swings and understudies have been, and will continue to be called upon much more frequently than what is typical, and so it was very poignant and appropriate that this group was welcomed to the stage to take a bow with the rest of the company at the end of the show.

Whether you are looking for a commentary on the current state of the world...Or you are looking to escape it entirely, this is the show to see!

CHICAGO continues in Repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 30th.

Photo Credit: David Hou


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