Friday, November 19, 2010

Chicago Razzle-Dazzles ‘em at Seattle Musical Theatre

By David-Edward Hughes for

It's been years since a local company has been able to land the rights to the mega-long run Broadway (and film) smash Chicago, and Seattle Musical Theatre has the boasting rights of being the first. SMT's non-Equity cast production doesn't quite have all that jazz, but it has more than enough to warrant your attendance, and the show itself (dare I say Kander & Ebb's best score?) is always worth a re-hearing.

By now, the tale Chicago spins (book by Fred Ebb) is pretty familiar. Set in the Windy City during the Roaring Twenties when a murder a day headlined the papers, it tells the (loosely fact based) tale of flapper fatale Roxie Hart, who guns down a lover and enters into a world where tabloid celebrity is king, and you better grab your 15 minutes of fame before the next scandal rocks the presses. Roxie is thrown into the Cook County jail where prison Matron Mama Morton shepherds a flock of Merry Murderesses, including reigning queen bee Velma Kelly. In no time, the deceptively demure Hart has Velma's ace lawyer Billy Flynn as her legal eagle, and sob-sister reporter Mary Sunshine sympathetically covering her every move, while her cuckolded sad-sack spouse Amos watches, invisibly, from the sidelines. Just when Hart's case threatens to take a backseat to the latest breaking story, she feigns pregnancy and goes into the courtroom loaded for bear. The verdict is scarcely announced when another hot murder hits town, leading Roxie and frenemy Velma to take their notoriety and head for a stage career. Bob Fosse's dark hued take on all this has been watered down a bit in various productions since the Encores! staging led to the still-running Broadway revival and the 2002 Oscar winning film, but director Ann Arends' entertaining take on the show leaves the Fosse vision more or less intact, with a principal cast that largely fills the bill.

As the pivotal Roxie Hart, Danielle Barnum is the real deal, a cool blonde charmer with a great voice and solid footwork, and she scores from beginning to end as the scheming Roxie, delivering her solos like "Funny Honey" and "Me and My Baby" with confident sizzle. In the showier role of Velma Kelly, Lindsey Larson may need a few years to grow into such roles, but she's a triple threat talent, nonetheless, who really sparkles in her duets "My Own Best Friend" and "Nowadays/Honey Rag" with Barnum, as well as her showcase numbers "I Can't Do It Alone" and "When Velma Takes the Stand."

Bradetta Vines is an ideal visual and vocal match for the unapologetically butch Mama Morton, and sells her "When You're Good to Mama" solo like a million bucks, before teaming with Larson to turn the raunchy ode to "Class" into an act two highpoint. Doug Knoop knowingly underplays poor soul Amos Hart, and sells the heck out of his "Mr. Cellophane" solo. And, as Mary Sunshine, R. McCabe is easily the equal of anyone I have ever seen in the role, delivering vocal pyrotechnics on the faux-maudlin "A Little Bit of Good." The only featured performance that left me wanting more was Troy Johnson, miscast as Billy Flynn. Johnson's sheer likability and youthful appearing presence are at odds with the Clarence Darrowish bent of the character, and the actor seems vocally overwhelmed by the demands of Billy's numbers.

The young ensemble isn't always up to the ambitions of choreographer Crystal Dawn Munkers' Fosse-fied choreography. The touchstone opening number "All That Jazz" is weakish, whereas the spunky "We Both Reached For the Gun" is both cleanly danced and vividly characterful. Director Arends misses by not letting Yusef Mahmoud as the entire Jury (a great bit when it works) play his takes and reaction out, making the scene about the hats he is wearing and not allowing the actor to simply inhabit the many faces of the jurors. Musical Director Paul Linnes' small but savory band does justice to the score of the show, though I found some of his tempos way to brisk for the insinuating styles of the songs. Dan Suiter's set design is the best looking I have seen at SMT in some years, and is well met by Richards Schaefer's noirish lighting design. Costume designer Deane Middleton has caught the right jazz age tone in her apparel, and especially gives Roxie and Velma some knockout outfits.

More of a full production than the hit Broadway revival and tour ever seemed, SMT's Chicago is a fast, fun, down & dirty diversion that contrasts well with the abundance of cozy holiday family fare arriving at our theatres the next few weeks.

Chicago runs through December 4, 2010, at Seattle Musical Theatre, Building #47, Magnuson Park. For more information go to


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