THEATER REVIEW: ‘Chicago’ cast breathes new life into Jazz Age setting

Chicago / The Two of Us Productions/ Performing Arts Center, Taconic Hills Central School

“CHICAGO” IS A MUSICAL about some very icky people. It’s set in the vaudeville era, and these characters are making self-serving use of our all-American taste for sex, crime, celebrity-worship and sleaziness. Not much has changed in America. Our taste for sex, crime, celebrity-worship and sleaziness is still around, and the show dances on.

”Chicago” is one of those creative entertainments that tries to have it both ways and mostly succeeds. It exploits our above-mentioned taste for… (you know), while offering juicy, jazzy music and slyly condemning the icky values simply by showing them.

Some of the ick arrives in very attractive packages. There is that chorus of short-skirted women who have murdered the men in their lives, men who mostly seem to deserve it. Among the ladies, Roxie and Velma are the really good-lookers.

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“Chicago the Musical,” performed by The Two of Us Productions, through May 8 at the Performing Arts Center at Taconic Hills, features Chicago beauties (l to r) Nicole Molinski, Betsy Rees, Alissa Wyatt, Samantha Szepessy and Jenny Smyth. Photo by Molinski Photography

As Roxie Hart (originally played by Gwen Verdon) we have Constance Lopez. All stages embrace the extraordinary face of actress Lopez, and in this role, it is framed and highlighted by a shiny cloche of blond hair. Behind the face is a performing intelligence that always seems to work. It has that rare trio: Freedom, Fullness and Focus.

The sweetness and vacuity of Roxie is a departure for her, but she goes there with what seems like little effort. The vocal range of the role suits her well, and she sings it without resorting to the obnoxious, currently prevalent nasality. She finds the vaudevillian’s demand of “look at me you dumbos!” just as doable as the drama and introspection of her character in “Almost Normal.” On her it looks easy.

Alissa Wyatt as Velma (originally played by Chita Rivera) has beauty, acting skill and voice, though the voice occasionally lapses into an overly raw sound. Wyatt has quality gifts, but, for this role, she lacks Velma’s (and Chita’s) toughness. Better to enjoy her in a role such as the baker’s wife in “Into the Woods,” which she has performed with The Two of Us. In spite of my carping, I hope for more Wyatt from these producers.

Brian Yorck as the slick-and-sleaze Billy Flynn is convincing. Brian Mauch as the cellophane man is adorable. Mauch owns a nice vocal quality, even though it is too frequently down-pitch.

“Chicago” is a show by and for dancers. Broadway dancers. Actually, Fosse dancers. (Bob Fosse was creator and choreographer of the original “Chicago.”) To be true to the tradition, none of these dancers can be undertrained or overweight. In spite of the professionalism that The Two of Us exhibits in many ways, it is probably too much to ask them to supply Broadway-level dancers outside of Actors’ Equity. In this cast, only Mike Van Horn really “gets” Fosse. The style requires that audiences be lured by crisp, disciplined technique into reading every tilt-of-shoulder and flick-of-hip. Lopez comes close, and her choreography, created in the Fosse style with Jenny Smyth, cleverly masks some dancer-deficits. It often succeeds in impact.

In this production at Taconic Hills, the 15-piece orchestra is sensibly seated upstage on steep-rising levels, forcing the dancers and singers down toward the audience, where all smart vaudeville performers belong. The levels also effectively encourage actor-musician interaction.

As usual, Steve Sanborn as conductor has a good instinct for the roll of a show. The brass of the score is definitely there in his “Chicago,” if a bit over-tuba-fied and over-tromboned. On opening night, the instruments that normally carry the inner harmonies of a score disappeared. Even notes from the company’s keyboardists were too sparse. I seem to recall that pianist Ryan Chase usually provides lots of harmonic padding and sometimes holds together the whole shebang. But perhaps he is a purist who dislikes the thought of synth sounds for a jazz-age band. (Just guessing.) Or maybe the sound-board operator went out for a snack.

Lucky for us, Fred Ebb was a keenly intelligent lyricist and John Kander’s music holds up really well, even if you get weary of keys that are bumped up a half step at some point in every number. (The composer is still doing it.)

See “Chicago” through May 8. For tickets, call 518 758-1648.

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