A web of betrayal, scandal, and murder is brewing deep in the heart of Columbia, MD. In their crowd-pleasing production of Chicago, Toby’s Dinner Theatre puts their own stamp on the sordid story of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, transporting audiences from the cozy performance space into a tale of criminal intrigue as big as the Windy City itself.
For those three people who aren’t familiar with the Tony and Oscar winning story, Chicago centers on Roxie Hart, a married woman on trial for the murder of her lover. After contracting big time defense attorney Billy Flynn, Roxie becomes an instant celebrity in Chicago, much to the chagrin of Velma Kelly, the original “it girl” murderess. A growing taste for the spotlight leads naïve Roxie down a path of deception and tabloid scandal that quickly spirals out of control. Eventually, Roxie and Velma become unlikely allies when an unexpected twist leaves them both picking up the pieces of their formerly glamorous public lives.
Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey’s directing style can best be described as “brisk”. The crisp dialogue, snappy musical numbers, and extremely brief scene changes maintained a high energy throughout the roughly two and a half hour running time. At times the show’s rapid clip results in a slight blurring of scenes and numbers, but the unyielding activity seems well suited to a post-dinner crowd. After all, the entire audience has just eaten a full buffet with mixed drinks and, perhaps, cheesecake, and more than a few might nod off if they were asked to, say, wait for Godot.
The pivotal role of Roxie Hart rests in the capable hands of Carole Graham Lehan. She delivers a veteran performance, nailing Roxie’s rapid emotional shifts and maintaining a sympathetic front even as she connives her way toward fame. Aside from the character work, Lehan confidently struts and croons her way through the show’s many signature numbers, shining in the ludicrous, vaudeville-tinged “Me and My Baby”. Lehan occasionally comes off as a bit too practiced, skating through moments that could benefit from a bit more spontaneity, but it’s a small knock against an otherwise solid outing.
Debra Buonaccorsi brings a crackling energy to the stage with her athletic turn as original prison darling Velma Kelly. Each dance step is crisp, each note dripping with attitude. Buonaccorsi imbues Kelly with a steely edge as she fights to keep her piece of the spotlight, determined not to be put out to pasture by each new murderess du jour. Her cagey performance couples nicely with neophyte Roxie’s more naïve approach to fame.
The production also benefits from strong showings by Jeffrey Shankle, in an assured turn as slick lawyer Billy Flynn, and the versatile David James, as Roxie’s sad sack husband Amos.
As Matron Mama Morton, Jesaira Glover contributes a powerhouse rendition of the classic “When You’re Good to Mama”, and Chris Rudy puts his jaw dropping vocal range to good use in an unexpected role. The energetic ensemble fleshes out the world of prison bars and flashbulbs with the help of Ilona Kessell’s sharp choreography.
The nightclub DNA of Chicago is right at home in Toby’s dinner theatre layout. Set designer David A. Hopkins utilizes four functional cells above the theatre’s four opposite entrances to immerse the audience in Roxie and Velma’s seedy jailhouse world. Hopkins’ economical design and Lynn Joslin’s subtle yet effective lighting plan allow the show to transition smoothly from cell block to courtroom to vibrant three ring circus.
Toby’s Chicago is a jazzy spectacle that roars out of the gate and doesn’t let up until the final lights go down. What it occasionally lacks in polish, it makes up for in high kicking energy and racy fun. So head down to Toby’s and paint the town.
Book by Fred Ebb & Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey
Musical Direction by Christopher Youstra
Choreographed by Ilona Kessell
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Chicago runs through November 6, 2011 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.