Chicago (SecondStory Repertory)

Posted on February 29, 2012

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SecondStory Rep Chicago
Copyright © 2012 Tim Poitevin Photography

SecondStory Repertory brazenly reaches for the neon stars with its powerhouse performance of Chicago, bringing the sardonic and torrid tale of egos, gin joints, gams, corruption and big town dreams to Redmond. Complete with live cabaret band and elaborate choreographed song and dance routines, Director Chris Nardine pulls off his own sleight of hand by efficaciously tackling the hugely ambitious Chicago and successfully transforming it to the intimate setting of SecondStory’s main stage. SSR’s production of Chicago hooks you and keeps hitting on all sixes until the very end.

Set in the mid-1920s, Chicago tells the story of an amoral chorus dancer Roxie Hart, deliciously brought to life by the talented Erika Zabelle. Watching Zabelle perform conjured up images of a young Bernadette Peters, as she brings forth surprising intensity and strength. In her undeterred self-centered ambition to ascend to stardom, Roxie proves that there is no depth of human depravity that she will not descend to. Nor is there any sordid character that she would not willingly partner with to achieve her dreams and keep her name in the headlines. From the cold murder of her adulterous partner to her serpentine lies and manipulation of others, no one is exempt from her exploitation. She even convinces her rube of a husband, Amos to initially take responsibility for the murder until the truth comes out and she is arrested.

SecondStory Rep Chicago "Jail Cell Tango"
Copyright © 2012 Tim Poitevin Photography

In jail awaiting trial, Roxie encounters Velma, played by Carissa Meisner Smit whose charm and strong vocal talent keeps the production energized throughout. Especially notable are Meisner Smit’s performances of “All that Jazz”, “Cell Block Tango” and “When Velma Takes the Stand”. Like Roxie, Velma is a vaudevillian performer arrested for murder and is currently enjoying the celebrity criminal spotlight. Tensions between the two escalate as Roxie dethrones Velma in the eyes of the Press and manages to grab the attention of Velma’s shyster lawyer, Billy Flynn played by Julian Schrenzel.

Schrenzel manages to steal the scenes he is in, shining in the role of the sleazy self-loving snake-oil showman lawyer, concerned more about his $5,000 and ‘Not Guilty’ verdicts than truth or justice. He proves himself to be the master manipulator of not only criminal law processes but the hearts and minds of the public, by exploiting the narcissistic bent of the Press. One particularly disturbing but extremely effective and enjoyable musical number is “We Both Reached for the Gun” which occurs during a meeting with the Press. Controlling her like a ventriloquist doll, Roxie sits perched on Flynn’s knee, moving and saying exactly what Flynn decides is the best course to win over the sympathies of an all too eager Press.

SecondStory Rep Chicago with Julian Schrenzel
Copyright © 2012 Tim Poitevin Photography.

The cast is rounded out nicely with top-notch performances from Tambre Massman as ‘Mama’ Morton, the bigger than life matron of the Cook County Jail, who delightfully hams it up while playing directly to the audience themselves. Buddy Mahoney cleverly portrays Amos, the naïve, soft-spoken and easily manipulated husband of Roxie. One would imagine that sharing the stage with all manner of flamboyant characters, he would be overwhelmed and overlooked. Somehow, he evocatively manages to draw the audience in and even hold his own amongst the more gregarious characters around him. His rendition of “Mr. Cellophane” was delightful and heartrending. His call for his exit music drew verbal sympathies throughout the audience. Well played, Buddy. Lastly, Lisa Wright-Thiroux shines in her role as Mary Sunshine, where she brings out her own inner Carol Burnett, to delight of the audience.

The production distinguishes itself in all areas, from the strong casting of the ensemble, pleasing choreography, inspired direction, lighting and costumes. I would be remiss to leave out the triumphant performance of the live band which was pivotal in selling the illusion that the audience was back in a prohibition-era night club.

SecondStory Rep Chicago "We Both Reached for the Gun."
Photo ©2012 Rob Falk.

Particularly enjoyable and reminiscent of Shakespeare’s line about the world being a stage and all of life a play were the nods made during the musical ascribing life to being like a dance or performance; performance being a metaphor for life. After all, haven’t we all attempted to dance our way out of a bind or tap dance around an issue? If cornered, who of us has not tried to pull a rabbit out of a hat to save the day? At times aren’t we all jugglers just trying to keep all the balls in the air; doing a bit of soft shoe just to grind out an existence.

Chicago is a satire on the criminal justice system where the real victim being systematically killed off, is the truth and it paints a less than flattering picture of how easily we are blinded by tinfoil celebrities, con men and their sycophants in the media. It’s not without a certain irony that Roxie and Velma must learn that in our attempts to deceive others, we can frequently become unwitting victims of our own lies, when we start to believe our own press.

In one humorous but poignant scene occuring where Velma and Mama lament, “Whatever happened to class”, as they, Roxie and others like them have spend the bulk of their energies butchering class, strangling truth and abusing the trust of others. In their blind pursuit of gaining the top of Fortune’s wheel, they neglected to realize that Fame is a fickle mistress, much easier to catch than it is to hold onto. The danger comes when with one push too much, Fortune’s Wheel topples coming full circle, leaving them crushed in its wake. It’s a painful lesson for us to learn. Fame is fleeting, as even the most novel of things inevitably becomes old news given enough time.

SecondStory Rep Chicago "When Velma Takes the Stand."
Photo ©2012 Rob Falk.

It’s been said that one thing we love more than watching a star rise like Icarus to unimaginable god-like heights of fame, is to watch them realize their humanity and plummet back to earth. While the characters in Chicago may seem extreme, it doesn’t take much personal reflection for us to identify with them, whether it’s something in ourselves or something we see in others. The self-serving showman, paid to dazzle and secure ‘Not Guilty’ verdicts for the guilty or the ugliness of unhindered ambition which only sees value in someone if they can be used to advance their own personal agenda and plans, is all around us these days. The question one must ask, is not whether or not we will follow that same path, but what will it take for us to finally learn the lesson which Velma and Roxie discover too late?

SecondStory Repertory’s performance of Chicago will leave you mesmerized with nary a weak spot. It’s enjoyable, over the top fun with plenty of ‘laugh or else you would cry’ moments, as you are left shaking your head wondering just how low people will go to secure their desires. Fame may be fickle but this production delivers on all cylinders, on all promises; supplying the goods with a touch of flare, panache and a bit of the old razzle-dazzle. The show runs February 3-26. Check out www.SecondStoryRep.org for information about future shows.

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