“Razzle dazzle ‘em!” Silver-tongue shyster lawyer Billy Flynn melodically opines that if you do that, you’ll have an audience eating out of your hand. If you can snag a ticket to the Keegan Theatre’s new production of Chicago, prepared to be razzled, dazzled and blown away.
If you have somehow missed Chicago from other outings regionally, national tours, Broadway or London, now is your chance to see it in all its glory and experience a valentine to the bygone days of show business. The creators of Chicago were at the top of their game when creating the show, starting with director-choreographer Bob Fosse, extending to the book and lyrics by Fred Ebb, and music by John Kander. The evocation of vaudeville and the music of the era was masterfully pastiched by Kander and Ebb to the unique performance style of Fosse. The original production’s only misstep was opening in the same season as A Chorus Line, which was a box office tidal wave. The year 1996 would change Chicago’s fortunes when it came back for New York’s Encores series and stayed for a transfer to Broadway where it has remained for going on 22 years.
All that is well and good, but Keegan one ups the current Broadway revival. The New York production features minimalist sets and all black evening and dance wear as wardrobe. As is fitting for a musical set in the turbulent 1920s – a time of gangsters, molls, bootleg whiskey and speakeasy joints – Keegan clearly places the show in the time period, with period costumes, topped with bobbed coiffures, as designed by Alison Samantha Johnson and Shannon Marie Sheridan, respectively. The action, song and dance take place on an impressive set that brings to mind a Prohibition Era saloon, complete with nooks and stairs. Tucked into the set is the top notch instrumental ensemble adding their own heat to the hot jazz-infused score.
Enter Velma Kelly, played with panache by Jessica Bennett, up for the double homicide of her sister and her boyfriend, who was a big name in vaudeville.
Fame is fickle when a new scandal emerges in the form of wide-eyed yet savvy Roxie Hart, Maria Rizzo in a bravura star turn. Hart shot her lover and her story is a good one too, according to femme fatale-chasing defense attorney Billy Flynn, here played with style by Kurt Boehm.
Bennett, Rizzo, and Boehm lead the company with effortless talents, each one a triple threat, handling the demands of the scenes, the score and the choreography in fine fashion. Bennett’s big turn “I Can’t Do it Alone” was a true showcase to her talents; and her duet with Rikki Howie Lacewell as jail matron Mama Morton was a stitch. Boehm pulled out the razzle dazzle in his big moments “All I Care About is Love,” “They Both Reached for the Gun” and the aforementioned “Razzle Dazzle.” Boehm brought a Bing Crosby ease to his singing and a Jimmy Cagney intensity to his dancing.
Rizzo, very familiar to DC audiences through performances at both Keegan and Signature Theatre, was the best and most interesting Roxie Hart I have seen. Rizzo certainly has the dance moves, and possesses a sumptuous voice that can grow to a rich belt when required, showcased in “Funny Honey” and her big act one number, “Roxie.” But it was her interpretation of Roxie’s budding confidence and possibly frought backstory that truly impressed me. With a hint of a Marilyn Monroe pout and innocence, Rizzo also added idiosyncrasies to her Roxie that hinted at a troubled past; these quirks were shed as her character’s star rose. It was such a nuanced performance, I could not take my eyes off her when she was onstage.
closes April 14, 2018
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Lacewell made her comic mark as Matron Mama Morton in her song “When You’re Good to Mama,” showing off her own expansive vocal instrument. And the seemingly innocent newspaper columnist (with a big secret) Mary Sunshine was made memorable by the unique and vivid performance by Chris Rudy. By now, it should be no secret this is a drag performance – true to vaudeville – and it is one Rudy handles skillfully.
And I would be remiss if I left out “Mr Cellophane,” aka Amos Hart, Roxie’s milquetoast of a husband but one who turns in an acting and singing tour-de-force as performed by longtime Keegan actor Michael Innocenti, who add another deep and touching performance to his impressive career.
The female ensemble – as the “six merry murderesses” of the Cook County Jail – are showcased in the showstopping “Cell Block Tango,” while the men dive into back up and lift up Roxie for her solo number. The entire company takes on the distinctive choreography by Rachel Leigh Dolan, which for the most part takes its cues from Kander’s masterpiece score and only hints at Fosse on occasion.
The entire production is overseen by the capable hands of Keegan’s husband and wife co-directors Susan Marie Rhea and Mark A. Rhea. The Rheas know how to interpret shows from the ground up and Chicago is yet another feather in their cap, a production that showcases the brilliant score and lyrics by Kander and Ebb and Fosse’s fascination with old-time show biz. Gimme that old razzle dazzle any day.
Chicago . music by John Kander . lyrics by Fred Ebb . book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse . directed by Susan Marie Rhea and Mark A. Rhea . Featuring: Maria Rizzo, Jessica Bennett, Kurt Boehm, Michael Innocenti, Chris Rudy, Rikki Howie Lacewell, Stephen Russell Murray, Michael Kozemchak, Katie McManus, Heather Gifford, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Jillian Wessel, Amber Jones, Melrose Pyne, Andre Hinds, Rj Pavel, Will Hayes, Kaylen Morgan, Ellen Abood, James Biernatowski . music directed by Jake Null . choreographed by Rachel Leigh Dolan . Scenic design by Matthew J. Keenan . Lighting Design by Jason Arnold . Costume design by Alison Samantha Johnson . Sound design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Stage manager: Alexis J. Hartwick . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.