There is a show about murder, deception, betrayal, greed and the depraved appetite of the media. It’s both entertaining and hilarious, and features some of the best song and dance numbers around. All of these elements can be found in Chicago: The Musical, which opened Tuesday night at the Walton Arts Center.
Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, the musical is based on a 1926 play written by a crime reporter. It premiered on Broadway in 1975, with original choreography by Bob Fosse, book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The musical also was made into the 2002 film that starred Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah and Richard Gere.
The touring production playing in Fayetteville this week has three strong qualities: fantastic music presented by the orchestra from center stage; solid, high-energy dancing and singing from the entire ensemble; and cast members who have created distinctly memorable, and sometimes loveable, characters.
At its core, this show tells the tale of Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, rival Vaudeville performers who have landed in the Cook County Jail for crimes of the heart. Velma shot her husband, whom she found in bed with her sister. Roxie shot the lover she’d been cheating on her husband with. Velma has been a star of Vaudeville, while Roxie’s still trying to get there.
The show opens with “All That Jazz,” a wonderful number, and the rest of the production is chock-full of great music, singing and choreography.
One of the best songs is “Cell Block Tango,” in which six female inmates describe the circumstances that led to their imprisonment. Each seated on a wooden chair, they take turns dancing and singing as they explain why their man “had it coming.” Their reasons are varied, their delivery hilarious. One simply claims, “Some guys just can’t hold their arsenic.”
Velma and Roxie both look to Matron “Mama” Morton to help them get released from prison, and she connects them with a ruthless lawyer to celebrity criminals, Billy Flynn. John O’Hurley, probably best known for playing J. Peterman on the “Seinfeld” television series, wonderfully fills the role of Billy Flynn. He is quick in the delivery of his cocky, clever dialogue. And his singing voice is just lovely.
Carol Woods, who plays Matron “Mama” Morton, is a fantastic singer herself. She has a deep, powerful voice, and her humor elevates several moments in the show. “Mama” Morton and Velma bemoan the deterioration of etiquette in “Class,” a lovely and funny duet they share in the second act.
Velma, played by Terra C. MacLeod, is a powerful force in this show, as is Roxie, played by Anne Horak. The pair shone together and individually with strong singing vocals, lively humor, and top-notch dance moves.
Roxie thinks the celebrity of her imprisonment will help her chances of being on Vaudeville. During the hilarious number, “We Both Reached for the Gun,” Roxie sits on Billy’s lap as he plays ventriloquist, feeding her the story that she’ll tell the jury. Later, she claims she’s pregnant, which garners her even more media attention, and hope for freedom.
Roxie’s pitiful mechanic husband, Amos (Ron Orbach), sings a wonderful song in the second act, “Mister Cellophane,” as he explains how no one ever notices him. Wearing white gloves and unleashing jazz hands, he sings and dances with very noticeable gusto.
Billy tells Roxie they’ll win her release from jail by giving the public and the jury the old “Razzle Dazzle.” He takes the lead in this song, one of the best numbers of the show. With actors holding tiny umbrellas and performing various tumbling acts, they demonstrate the circus that is the media, and the world, at times.
The look of this show is very clean. The scenery is minimal. Much of the action is illuminated by dramatic spotlights. The orchestra is seated on risers in a bandstand at the center of the stage, with most of the action from the actors happening between them and the front of the stage.
This show makes smart use of that bandstand, with cast members making grand entrances and exits on stairs through the center of it. They sometimes interact and joke with the conductor.
The show is also steamy. The dancers are physically fit, and they proudly flaunt it. Most of them are scantily clad in black, in outfits that work well for the numerous suggestive and sexy dance numbers. In one number, dancers don bowler hats and slink along the stage with limp hands, shown in silhouette by a spotlight behind them.
In the end, Velma and Roxie come to terms with the hands they’ve been dealt, and they become an unlikely team. In “Nowadays,” they sing the line, “You can like the life you’re livin’, or you can live the life you like.” Those are the choices, folks.
Performances of Chicago: The Musical continue through Sunday at the Walton Arts Center. For tickets and information, call (479) 443-5600 or visit the website at waltonartscenter.org/.