Theatre Review: “Chicago the Musical” by Actors Theatre of Indiana

On Saturday night a friend and I drove to the new Studio Theater to see the Actors Theatre of Indiana production of “Chicago the Musical.” 

The Studio Theater is part of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana.  Carmel is just north of Indianapolis.  Actors Theatre of Indiana (ATI) is the Center’s resident professional theatre company.

The book for “Chicago the Musical” was written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse.  The music is by John Kander, with lyrics by Fred Ebb.  Judy Fitzgerald directed ATI’s production.

I loved the intimacy of this production!  I recognized many of the performers from other professional shows in larger venues around town over the years.  It was a treat to be able to see and hear these beloved performers doing their thing up close in a cozy space and in a show that highlights their singing and dancing talents.

What the Show is About

“Chicago the Musical” is about a couple of female murderers – Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly – in the 1920s that used an unscrupulous lawyer – Billy Flynn – to help them milk the media’s fascination with them in order to be acquitted.

It is also about the fickleness of glamour and fame in general, the slipperiness of Chicago itself at that time, and the fact that almost nothing anywhere, any time, is completely what it seems at first glance.

Artistic Considerations

Because this is a musical, most of the storytelling happens through song and dance rather than spoken dialogue, although there is some of that, too.

As I mentioned earlier, it is a treat to be able to hear good professional singers and watch good professional dancers up close.  My seat was only one row down from the back of the theatre, but the house is so small and the rows of chairs so steeply raked that I could easily see everyone’s faces.  The show is polished in terms of set, sound, lights, costumes (especially costumes!), etc. but the theatrical magic – the “razzle dazzle” as Billy Flynn would say – comes from the performers themselves more than anything else.   They are the ones doing those impressive flips and lifts.  They are the ones belting those long notes. 

And if something unexpected happens – say, one dancer’s microphone cord catches on another’s button or something – we are right there with them as they gracefully untangle and dance on with a smile.  There is something uniquely appealing about being able to experience the humanity and aliveness of a professional quality show up close.

In a production this intimate, which is even more intimate than the Broadway Across America touring production of “Chicago the Musical” that I saw in 2009, there can be a lot of fun interplay between the cast and the piano player, too, especially since the 5-piece orchestra is right on stage with the cast and the piano serves as a set piece for people to sit and even dance on sometimes while they sing.  Music director Brent Marty plays the piano, sings back-up, interacts with the cast, conducts the instrumentalists behind him while facing forward to the audience, and serves as a separate character in the story at one point.  Whew!  And he does it all smoothly and admirably.

The live orchestra itself sounds steamy-jazzy and wonderful.  In addition to Brent on piano, the orchestra includes Jay Emrich on bass, Steve Stickler on woodwinds, Scott Whitford on brass, and Greg Wolff on percussion. 

Now about the story and characters:

Don’t go to this show expecting the characters to be like in the movie… 

Well, actually, Bradley Reynolds, the man that plays the lawyer, Billy Flynn, did remind me a little of Richard Gere, who played him in the movie.  They both have that panther-like quality to their handsomeness.  However, Bradley gives his portrayal a layer of trustworthy Mr. Rodgers (from the children’s TV show), too, which makes Billy Flynn’s essentially UNtrustworthy nature all the more creepy.

So for the most part, don’t go to this show expecting the characters to be exactly like in the movie.  They are all drawn with more subtlety here, which takes some getting used to but which is ultimately refreshing and satisfying, and better suited to the intimate venue.

Cynthia Collins and Holly Stults each bring a relatable poignancy to their portrayals of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, respectively.  You can imagine each of the characters asking herself, “How in the world did I get here?”  The differences in personality and life experience between the two women seem not all that large after all, which means that maybe they are not all that different from us, either.  Which is deliciously unsettling.

Paul Hansen is freshly heartbreaking as Roxie’s “invisible” husband, Amos. 

Kenny Shepard is hilarious as ALL of the members of the jury.

I did not recognize John Vessels at all as the refined and ladylike reporter, Mary Sunshine, until I got home and looked at my program.  I have seen and enjoyed his comedic portrayals several times at the Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre.  He is a funny surprise in this show, too.

Nor did I recognize Dwandra Nickole, whose dramatic work I had loved in the Phoenix Theatre’s production of “In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play” until I read my program, but I loved getting to hear her sing in this show as prison Matron “Mama” Morton.

The ensemble of dancer-singers is consistently strong and sexy.  It is captained by Carol Worcel (Murderess Liz) and also includes:  Vickie Klosky (Murderess Mona), Kristen Noonan (Murderess Hunyak), Jennifer R. Shoup (Murderess June), Sally Scharbrough (Murderess Annie), Tim Hunt (Fred Casley and other roles), Sean Seager (various roles), and Kenny Shepard (various roles.)

The choreography was adapted by Michael Worcel after Bob Fosse and Ann Reinking, with assistance from Carol Worcel.

In addition to the people I have already mentioned, the production staff includes James W. Carringer as stage manager/production manager; Duane McDevitt as scenic designer, Marti Meeker as lighting designer, Don Drennen as sound designer, and Brian Horton as costume designer.  For the most part, the design components are deceptively simple in order to let the performers’ talents shine.  However, the brick-walled set, the prison door lighting, and other subtle elements help to make this an artistically rich piece of theatre art.  The sexy costumes, created mostly from a black-grey-white palette but with lots of sparkle, are gorgeous.

I also have to say that the feather fan dance in this production of “Chicago the Musical” is adorable.  I may carve time to see this show again next weekend just because of that.

Audience and Appeal Factors

This is a show for adults that like intimate, live theatre with lots of experienced, professional singing and dancing.

I wouldn’t bring children to this show because even though it is beautiful and funny, it is also about murder, adultery, the death penalty, and other mature themes.  The sounds of the gun shots are produced by the percussionist, and the appearance of blood is produced by red scarves, but the costumes are very sexy and there are spoken references to sex.  It doesn’t matter if your kids can “take it” or not.  Get a babysitter so that the other adults in the theatre can relax and enjoy the show.

This is a different but, I think, satisfying new perspective on the show for adults that loved the movie or loved seeing a big Broadway production of it first.

If you have never seen any version of “Chicago” I bet you will recognize and enjoy the “All That Jazz” song.

This is also a fun show to start with if you have not yet seen a show in the new Studio Theater.  I was lucky enough to be in the audience for the very first show there – a concert by country music singer-songwriter Joanna Smith in March – but I did not have time to write much about it then.  The Studio Theater is a “black box” whose comfy seats and sturdy risers can be reconfigured into any one of four arrangements:  theatre in the round (seats on all sides of the stage), traverse (seats on two opposing sides of the stage), thrust (seats curved around the front and a little of the sides of the stage), and proscenium (seats only in front of the stage.)  For “Chicago,” the seats are arranged in the thrust configuration, so you may ask for a seat assignment either directly in front or a little off to either side of the stage area.

I have enjoyed two “tuning concerts” in the Palladium and I look forward to the opening of the large Booth Tarkington Theatre later this year, but I think the Studio Theater will be my favorite of all of the performance spaces in the Center for the Performing Arts.  I love being close to the artistic action.

One other FYI:  This show includes a lot of atmospheric “haze” produced from either a smoke machine or a fog machine as a special effect.  This always gives me a headache but I also think it looks cool.

Box Office, etc.

ATI’s production of “Chicago the Musical” continues Wednesdays-Sundays through May 22, 2011 at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis.  For more information and to buy tickets, please call 317-843-3800 or visit www.thecenterfortheperformingarts.org.  For more information about Actors Theatre of Indiana, please visit www.actorstheatreofindiana.org.

There is free parking at the back of the Studio Theater’s building.  Turn in and park in the garage as if you were going to the Palladium, but instead of walking back outside across the yard to the Palladium, just step off the parking garage elevator on the first floor and walk inside to your right.

I forgot to check, but I think you can buy beer, wine, and soft drinks at a bar in the lobby during intermission.

Season Announcement

I did remember to pick up a flyer with the new ATI season on it.  When director Judy Fitzgerald gave the curtain talk before the show, she said that Actors Theatre of Indiana was proud to announce their seventh season.  Here are the musicals they are doing for 2011-2012 at the Studio Theater:

  • “Cole,” a revue based on the life of Cole Porter, devised by Benny Green and Alan Strachan – September 9-25, 2011.
  • “Forbidden Broadway” – October 28-November 20, 2011.  I loved this parody show when ATI did it at the Oak Hill Mansion in 2009.  Judy said this 2011 version will include a significant amount of new material, including spoofs from “Wicked.”
  • “Godspell,” based on the Gospel According to Matthew with a score by Stephen Schwartz – February 10-26, 2011.
  • “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music by Jimmy Roberts – April 27-May 20, 2011

ATI is also doing “Frog and Toad” again at the Pike Performing Arts Center on December 16, 17, and 18, 2011.  I cheered when I read that.  I love ATI’s production of this family favorite that is based on the endearing stories of Arnold Lobel.  I first saw it in 2008.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh

(photo above by Julie Curry)

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