From the moment accused murderess Velma Kelly makes her spectacular entrance, first rising from beneath the stage, then descending a staircase that runs down the center of the on-stage orchestra in “Chicago”, I couldn’t help but have one thought…IF you’ve never seen a Broadway play, this is the one to see. I’m highly confident should you look up Broadway Music in Webster’s dictionary, the entry could be one word, “Chicago”. Having recently launched their latest National Tour, “Chicago” is currently enjoying a successful run in Nashville at TPAC’s Jackson Hall with performances continuing through Sunday, October 26.
Theatre-goers first came to know Velma Kelly, Roxie Hart and the rest of the Merry Murderesses of the Cook County Jail back in 1926 when real-life Chicago Tribune reporter, Maurine Dallas Watkins, only slightly fictionalized the tale of accused murderess Belva Gaetner for Watkins’ stage play, “Chicago”. The following year, the first film version of “Chicago” was released, fast forward two more decades and yet another film, “Roxie Hart” hit theatres. Then, in 1975, with music, lyrics and book by legends John Kander, Fred Ebb and genius before his time, choreographer Bob Fosse, the Broadway musical debuted.
For the musical stage, the action is presented as various acts within a vaudeville performance. Instead of literal sets depicting nefarious jailed women hoping to hire a smooth talking lawyer to get them acquitted, the audience is treated to what could easily be a night of vaudeville theatre, even injecting from time to time narrative introductions. When the show was revived on Broadway in 1996, it absolutely confirmed…musical theater will never be the same. Remaining on Broadway ever since, “Chicago” is longest-running current American musical, second only to British-conceived “The Phantom of the Opera”. One month from today, “Chicago” will become the longest running American musical in the history of Broadway when it surpasses “Cats” in number of performances.
Thanks to Terra C. MacLeod, Bianca Marroquin, Roz Ryan, Jacob Keith Watson, John O’Hurley and one of the most physically fit, best-looking and down-right sexiest cast of supporting players, ‘Chicago’ is as hot as ever!
Prior to their arrival in Music City, I had the chance to interview four of the lead actors. In preparing for my Rapid Fire 20 Q (posted earlier this week and available to view via the hyperlink), I discovered one reason this incarnation of “Chicago” is so seamless is that most of the cast has been associated with the show in some incarnation or another for quite some time. MacLeod has the distinction of playing Velma in the first-ever French production of “Chicago”. Marroquin starred as Roxie in Mexico before making her Broadway debut in the role in 2001. John O’Hurley, best known as Elaine’s boss, J. Peterman on “Seinfeld”, portrayed lawyer Billy Flynn in previous “Chicago” National Tours and Roz Ryan holds the distinction of having played prison matron Mama Morton in more performances than any other actress since the show’s revival in 1996.
MacLeod’s Velma Kelly, as indicated above, set the night on fire backed by the supporting chorus of gorgeously lithe bodied dancers with “All That Jazz”, just one of the show’s numerous familiar tunes. I was gobsmacked, not only by the purposely simple seeming choreography that starts the number, but also by MacLeod’s no-holds-barred, but equally fluid vocal performance. While MacLeod stands center stage, surrounded by members of the company, she slowly begins to swivel her hips while her hands mimic the lyrics, barely moving at the wrists. As “All That Jazz” revs up, so does the choreography. Who knew it was possible to have a show-stopper at the top of the show? But alas the show doesn’t stop there and neither does MacLeod. Tough on the outside (you’d have to be to be famous in a woman’s prison, right?), MacLeod shows her vulnerability when needed. Her voice shines in “I Can’t Do It Alone” and Act II’s “I Know a Girl”. On the flipside, her flirtatiously choreographed take on “When Velma Takes the Stand” is oh, so fun to watch!
Having been a fan of “Chicago” since I was a Tony-watching, showtunes-singing kid, I couldn’t have been more thrilled when Marroquin uttered her Betty Boop-ish lyrics of Roxie Hart’s first number, “Funny Honey”. I must admit, I love that she possesses that same innocent, quirky vocal quality as Gwen Verdon, the woman legend has it is mostly responsible for the musical we know and love as “Chicago” as she urged her husband, Bob Fosse to write it for her after having read the original 40s play. Just like Roxie steals the spotlight of notoriety from Velma, Marroquin, by nature of the way the show is written, gets her own moments in the spotlight. Her literal and figurative “Tap Dance”, as she tries to sweet talk naive hubby Amos into paying for noted attorney Billy Flynn to defend her for the murder of her boyfriend is a little bit of soft shoe and tongue-in-cheek heaven. Even though I knew it was coming, I was still completely enthralled by Marroquin’s limp-as-a-dishrag turn as Billy Flynn’s ventriloquist dummy during the fast-paced, frantic and fabulous “We Both Reached for the Gun”. While the film version really amps up the voltage on “Roxie”, the tune in which Roxie Hart surpassed Velma Kelly’s notoriety in the press, the current stage production successfully dials it down just a tad, maybe a subliminal reminder that even fame and recognition aren’t exactly what they’re built up to be. Still another show-stopping moment.
While he’s reduced to Roxie’s whipping boy, Jacob Keith Watson as Amos Hart provides just that, heart. The butt of Billy Flynn’s jokes….he constantly refers to Amos as Andy, a wink to the vaudeville era during which the action takes place, Watson makes his presences known during Act II’s touchingly revealing “Mr. Cellophane”.
Keeping the earworms coming, “Chicago” fires off another direct hit with “Cell Block Tango”. Sexy, seductive and sensationally sinful, this number has it all as the Merry Murderesses reveal the often humorous circumstances surrounding their unfortunate incarceration. Perhaps modern audiences are most familiar with this song because of the 2002 “Chicago” musical movie starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, that or they’ve attended a drag show in the past decade. Either way, it’s just another spectacular moment in the show. Maybe it’s always been done this way, but it wasn’t until Nashville’s opening night performance that I noticed MacLeod’s Velma’s deliberate pronunciation of the word “Cicero”. She pauses ever so slightly to where it sounds like “Sis-ero”. Perhaps a another little wink to the fact that Velma’s victims include her vaudeville act partner, her sister.
Proving there’s plenty of ammunition in the musical arsenal that is “Chicago”, It’s then Roz Ryan’s turn to turn it out. Just few notes in and it’s evident why she holds the record for performing the role of Mama Morton. Ryan’s voice is powerful, strong and commanding, the epitome of Matron Mama Morton. Her Act II’s high point comes during the still relevant “Class” a duet with MacLeod’s Velma in which the two women lament the lack of niceties.
While it’s a bit before John O’Hurley’s Billy Flynn comes in on the action, when he does, it’s to thunderous applause. On stage, he’s every bit as charismatic, debonaire and commanding as you’d expect. Oh, and that voice. He’s the perfect Billy Flynn. Who wouldn’t fall for his charms? Like his co-stars, O’Hurley gets his share of memorable moments. “All I Care About”, like so many numbers in the show, is visually stunning with the jailbirds doubling as showgirls as they flank Billy’s side. As mentioned earlier, O’Hurley’s spot-on timing and syncopated movements with Marroquin during “We Both Reached for the Gun” are a joy to behold. Act II’s “Razzle Dazzle” is just that, overflowing with showmanship, the epitome of the what Broadway should and does represent, a glimpse of real-life as seen through the creative eye. “Chicago” is proof you don’t need elaborate sets, special effects, smoke and mirrors if the source material is already perfect.
I could go on and on, touting the perfection of the show, mentioning C. Newcomer’s subtext-filled Miss Mary Sunshine or Matthew Winnegge’s brilliantly blissful blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn as every member of the Jury, but alas, I feel I should leave something for the show. Trust me like you’d trust Billy Flynn with your innocence hanging in the balance when I say, you don’t want to miss “Chicago”!
“Chicago” continues the Music City leg of its current national tour with performances thru Sunday, October 26. For tickets and performance dates/times, CLICK HERE. Not in Nashville, but hoping to catch “Chicago” on tour? CLICK HERE for a full list to upcoming tour dates. If you’ve enjoyed my review of “Chicago” at TPAC’s Jackson Hall, be sure and click the ‘subscribe’ tab located at the close of this article to sign up for free email alerts whenever new Nashville Entertainment articles have been posted.