PARK CITY — I had the good fortune this past weekend to hit a show at the Egyptian Theater in Park City. It was a relief heading up the canyon and being greeted by the ten-degree-cooler temperatures of Summit County. Mostly, however, it was a thrill to see a locally done production of Bob Fosse’s, Chicago. Chicago is a musical telling of a Prohibition-era tale of sex, jazz, media and the nature of the modern American dream. Roxie Hart, an adulterous housewife with dreams of being noticed, gets her wish when her lover is found dead on the bedroom floor with three bullets in him. Mrs. Hart soon finds herself on death row at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. To fight for her life she discovers the two best weapons a girl can have: mainstream media that will print anything to sell more papers and a shrewdly devious lawyer without a conscience.
After booking, Roxie (played by Ginger Bess), comes toe-to-toe with Vaudeville’s brightest star, Miss Velma Kelly (Erin Royall Carlson) who is also on death row. Velma’s publicity has skyrocketed from her infamy at “allegedly” murdering her husband after finding him in bed with her own sister. The tensions rise as both vie for the spotlight, the front page and the attention of their lawyer, the unassailable Billy Flynn (Kim Blackett). Bess and Carlson play fantastically off each other, both vocally and physically. I will confess that the moment Carlson stepped on stage I was sold with her as Velma. Her presence on stage, her look, her voice reeked of the arrogant cabaret singer. While not as strong of a dancer as I’d expect to take the lead in a Fosse musical, she made up for it in her character. Bess had the more difficult task of selling me on the ignorant red-headed housewife yearning for her time in the spotlight. During the first act her dynamic as Roxie seemed to boarder on extremes. Never was there an inflection in the face or tone of voice that keyed the audience into her change or mood. Just a jump from sweet and supposedly innocent to tantrum housewife. Not a lot of substance. In Bess’ defense, I have always been more “Team Velma” than “Team Roxie.” I’ve never liked Roxie’s character; she always seemed to have too weak stance in my opinion.
The character of Roxie Hart would be akin to Kim Kardashian as Velma to Sandra Bullock. The A-Lister with bad taste in men always wins out over the talentless reality star in my book. So when Bess had to convince me to care for this pouting, unfaithful girl, Roxie she had an uphill battle. No one can doubt Bess’s talent, however. Her musical performance was through-the-roof spectacular. As I said before, the pairing of Carlson and Bess was casting well done. The act one finale, “My Own Best Friend,” left me with my jaw dropped. Their vocal blend was superb! While I may not have cared for Roxy, Bess had my full attention.
The lighting design (by Seth Miller) brought a simple and well conceived addition to Bess and Blackett’s ventriloquist number, painting the scene and washing Bess’s color to create a perfect dummy effect. The lighting also created effectual moods for other numbers like Andrew Nadon’s pitiful “Mr. Cellophane.” Nadon’s portrayal of Roxie’s faithful husband in that song had me doting over him like a lost puppy.
With a talented and supportive ensemble and extremely talented pit, Chicago is a musical and vocal beauty. The women of the cast drove it home with the popular “Cell Block Tango,” as expected. The set, costumes and sound all fell into place leaving little room to distract from the performance. Music director Anne Puzey created an amazing sound out of an eight-man orchestra and served John Kander and Fred Ebb’s score well. Not once was my attention drawn to them, but instead I was able to focus entirely on the action on stage.
The choreography was the only thing that caused ensemble numbers (and the show as a whole) to suffer, in that they seemed unrehearsed. It was almost as if the dancing and been an afterthought to the well oiled vocals and stage direction. This problem with the dancing was not an enormous folly, but it was enough that it drew my eyes.
Last of all I must to give a shout out to my favorite performance of the show, Camille Van Wagoner‘s Matron Mamma Morton (the “keeper of the keys” at Cook County’s female detention center). Always ready with a helping hand, the Matron helps to her inmates stay comfortable and avoid the noose (for a small fee). As the first words of “When You’re Good to Mamma” rolled off Van Wagoner’s lips, I was grinning from ear to ear. This woman was Mamma Morton! Sadly, other than her humorous duet with Carlson in the second act, Van Wagoner’s character takes on a very supportive role throughout the show. She’s mostly there to encourage plot and announce musical numbers. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Van Wagoner. She had me laughing through “Me and My Baby.” The theater goers next to me couldn’t understand why I was so hysterical.
Director Anne Stewart Mark has pulled together an amazing level of talent and art to the stage in Dark Horse’s rendition of Chicago. It’s not a show commonly produced in Utah. There’s always the occasional national tour. And, of course, the 2002 Hollywood version that can be fished out of the DVD collection. (But let’s be honest, it’s never quite the same after the L.A. producers get their hands on the script.) So to see a production of the original script as the it was intended is always a treat. Mark has done a fantastic job with this production. Head up to old Main Street to enjoy this musical classic!