BWW Review: Keegan Theatre Gives Them the Old Razzle Dazzle in CHICAGO
For the next five weeks, Keegan Theatre is transforming itself from that nice theatrical establishment on Church Street in Dupont Circle to "a noisy hall where there's a nightly brawl." And you would be hard pressed to name any other place you'd rather be than watching the razzle dazzle that is their sensational new production of Chicago.
By now, everyone is familiar with the story of Roxie Hart (Maria Rizzo) and Velma Kelly (Jessica Bennett), the two merry murderesses; their smooth as silk lawyer Billy Flynn (Kurt Boehm); Roxie's forgettable husband Andy...err...I mean Amos (Michael Innocenti); and the prison matron with a direct line to the William Morris Agency, Matron Mama Morton (Rikki Howie Lacewell). After Roxie murders her lover, she becomes an overnight celebrity culminating in the trial of the century, or so the papers say.
When you mention Chicago, the stage show at least, most people think of the minimalist production with actors clad in black leather and lace which opened on Broadway more than two decades ago. So the question hung in the air - would Keegan's production be a copy or an original? I am thrilled to report, it is the later!
The beauty of Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse's libretto is that every musical number is envisioned as a stand alone song for the performers. Keenly picking up on this, Susan Marie Rhea and Mark Rhea have staged, thanks to Matthew J. Keenan's set design, the show as if it were a backstage vaudeville extravaganza.
Keenan's set is two-tiers with an exuberant 11 piece orchestra on the second level, leaving most of the action on the first level main stage or sides. It focuses the audience center stage, which is where all the character's want to be or eventually end up. Much like the production touring the country and currently on Broadway and London's West End, the set is rather minimalist. The difference is that it doesn't feel as abstract and the vaudeville feel and structure of the show is allowed to shine through.
Rizzo leads the cast and is the definition of a trip threat as Roxie Hart. Many actresses have interrupted Roxie as a dumb blonde who hit it lucky. Not Rizzo. Her portrayal is smarter, more self-confident, funnier and more well-rounded as Roxie than we normally see. It is yet another way Keegan's Chicago distinguishes itself from what has come before. Her "Nowadays" is performed less out of sadness, and more out of the realization that her 15 minutes of fame is finally up.
Rachel Leigh Dolan has lovingly created Fosse's stylized choreography to tremendous effect. "The Press Conference Rag" is pure perfection thanks to Rizzo and Boehm who does double duty as Billy Flynn and Dance Captain. Part of what made Chicago the success it is was Fosse's stylized moves, and that has not been overlooked in this production. Boehm also possess the vocal chops, sly charm and cunning personality to pull off the greatest defense attorney on stage or anywhere for that matter.
A key aspect of Chicago is its dry wit and biting cynicism, both of which are missing from Jessica Bennett's Velma Kelly, the one weak link in an otherwise sensational production. Too often she comes off too straight-laced and misses the inherent humor in Ebb and Fosse's libretto. For example, there seems to be no fun in her "All the Jazz." When Fred Casley asks about Roxie's husband being home, Bennett seems to miss the point that he had another agenda on his mind and wasn't just curious about Amos' location.
And speaking of Amos, the character often jokes about how no one notices him. Well, that certainly is not the case for Innocenti. Now, in full disclosure, I always look forward to Innocenti's performance anytime I attend a show at Keegan. But with Amos, he not only proves himself a song and dance man, but one capable of generating laughs, warmth and affection, and all in the same number. That number of course is the showstopping Al Jolson inspired "Mr. Cellophane."
Now, making Velma and Roxie's rise to stardom possible is the "keeper of the keys" Matron Mama Morton, performed with soul and tongue-and-cheek humor by Rikki Howie Lacewell. She and Bennett are terrific together in "Class" lamenting the decline of society and it is moments like these that make Chicago's humor so potent.
And while not an original observation, Chicago's incredible second life as a musical cannot be overstated.
This musical was basically forgotten after its 1975 debut until Encores staged a concert version, which quickly transferred to Broadway in 1996. It is now second only to The Phantom of the Opera in terms of longest Broadway runs, and doesn't show signs of closing anytime soon. However, even more remarkable, is that the show's themes of instant celebrity, cynicism, and the media circus that often surrounds us - seems to grow more applicable with each passing performance. Cable news, reality stars and social media are all a testimony to those themes.
Chicago is too important a musical to simply become a carbon copy, which is why Keegan's production must not only be cheered, but supported as well. They could have chosen to replicate what has been done for the last two decades and choose not to. The result is a fresh take on an American classic. So "start the car, I know a whoopee spot. Where the gin is cold, but the piano's hot," and it is Keegan Theatre.
Runtime is two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
Chicago at Keegan Theatre - 1742 Church St NW, Washington, DC 20036 - runs thru April 14th . For tickets please click here.
Photo: The ensemble of Chicago. Credit: Cameron Whitman.