The Broadway revival of Chicago, the satirical show about murder, celebrity and corruption, is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history; the 2002 film of Chicago won the Academy Award. Fred Kander and John Ebb’s show has a memorable score, an array of tongue-in-cheek characters and is perhaps best known for Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography. It’s not easy to stage. All the more reason to make a call immediately to the box office at The Carnegie in Covington to get a ticket for an eye-popping local production. Chicago is receiving a flawless staging by Ed Cohen and Dee Anne Bryll — every element works, and the result is stunning. Talk about your razzle-dazzle.
Fosse’s original dance moves (think “jazz hands”) are among the most memorable in musical theater, so strongly identified with the show that they’re hard to escape. But choreographer David Baum has brought fresh movement to every dance number, acknowledging Fosse’s work but not mimicking it. From the attention-grabbing opener, “All That Jazz” to intricate numbers like “Cell Block Tango” or the fancy flourishes of “All I Care About,” everything seems freshly thought out and impressively executed. This is Baum’s local debut; his Broadway experience shows.
Chicago’s cast is strong in every role. As Velma Kelly, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, a senior in musical theater at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, is all lanky angles and hard edges, while Roxie Hart gets a curvaceous, falsely naive tenacity from Broadway veteran Leslie Goddard. (An Equity professional, she recently moved to Cincinnati; last spring she played Missy Miller in Ensemble Theatre’s The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns.) Both are triple threats — great singers, top-notch dancers and actors who bring their vivid roles to life.
Goddard is especially good at feigning innocence with a barely hidden vein of crude ambition.
Cohen and Bryll’s casting excellent doesn’t stop with Goddard and Sprawl. The show’s female dancers — Kelsey Andrae, Kathryn Miller, Kate Mueller, Jules Shumate and Abby Wagner — are total knockouts as the “merry murderesses” in “Cell Block Tango.” They also fill almost every scene with assured execution of Baum’s choreography and varied visuals. Their male counterparts (Brian Anderson, Charlie Meredith, Joseph Squeri and Brian Wylie) don’t get to be quite so showy, but they provide constant support throughout.
Individual roles are confidently played with knowing self-awareness. Dan Doerger’s Billy Flynn, the sly, money-grubbing attorney, is all smiles and oily panache, especially as the master of manipulation in “We Both Reached for the Gun.” Randy Bailey plays Roxie’s hapless husband Amos, and his rendition of “Mr. Cellophane” evokes audible audience sympathy. Angela Nalley’s plus-sized Matron Mama Morton is a steely-eyed dictator, especially good on “When You’re Good to Mama.” Jay Goodlett brings a knowing presence and fluid motion to the Master of Ceremonies, setting up scenes and stepping in and out of the action as the victims of the various murderesses. Sean P. Mette captures the silliness of the bleeding-heart columnist Mary Sunshine, including a tremulous rendition of “A Little Bit of Good.”
Supporting the show is a 10-person band that would be worth hearing even if the production never showed up onstage. Conducted by Damon Stevens from Northern Kentucky University, the players completely mastery Kander’s percussive score, especially the brass and reed sections.
The shallow stage at The Carnegie’s Otto M. Budig Theatre is not an easy venue for productions, but that’s not evident with Chicago. Kristen Robinson’s simple scenic design uses two sliding frames trimmed with lights and two scaffold towers that glide in and out on the bare stage (you can see the theater’s back wall). The action benefits from David Larose’s moody lighting design. Dean Walz’s costumes are picture perfect: black lingerie that shows lots of skin, bright colors (Billy’s fire-engine red suit) and tons of glitter, feathers and beads.
Does this Chicago have any shortcomings? A few sound issues were my only disappointment. The actors use body mics, but some still don’t project spoken lines effectively, and others failed to evoke fully the humor of lines from Ebb’s clever script. It’s not a serious detriment, and I suspect that delivery will improve over the next two weekends.
“Nowadays,” one of the show’s concluding numbers, opines that “in 50 years or so, it’s gonna change, you know. But oh, it’s heaven — nowadays.” The Carnegie has found the formula to deliver excellent musical theater from the past “50 years or so,” and it’s proving to be heaven indeed — as evidenced with this sexy, salacious tale of murder and greed.
CHICAGO, presented by The Carnegie, continues through Aug. 25. More info: thecarnegie.com