Review: The Rep's "Chicago" is strapped to the beat | Theater Reviews | Arkansas news, politics, opinion, restaurants, music, movies and art

Monday, February 25, 2019

Review: The Rep's "Chicago" is strapped to the beat

Posted By and on Mon, Feb 25, 2019 at 12:11 PM

click to enlarge Rep Board Chair Ruth Shepherd, Mayor Frank Scott, Rep. French Hill and incoming Executive Artistic Director Will Trice - STEPHANIE SMITTLE
  • Stephanie Smittle
  • Rep Board Chair Ruth Shepherd, Mayor Frank Scott, Rep. French Hill and incoming Executive Artistic Director Will Trice


The original version of “Chicago” — adapted into a play from Chicago Tribune reporter Marlene Dallas Watkins’ coverage of two murder trials — suffered some unfortunate timing by way of its concurrent opening with Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line.” Worse, its original Roxie Hart, Gwen Verdon, fell ill at the same time the musical was threatened with closing.

Secretly and under the condition that it not be advertised in advance, Liza Minnelli, with only a week to learn the part, agreed to step into the role for a five-week run while Verdon recovered. Spoiler alert: The play would become one of the most adored musicals of our time, particularly after Verdon and her once-husband Bob Fosse bought the rights and transformed it into the choreographic gem it is today — the apotheosis of the Fosse style onstage, all feathers and hats and limp wrists and vaudeville sensibilities, mixed with a healthy dose of shade to throw at our nation’s broken criminal justice system.

The Rep’s much anticipated season opener took the traditional good-luck wish “break a leg” too seriously, as incoming Artistic Director
Will Trice hinted to the audience at Friday night's opening of "Chicago": “The Roxie you’re gonna see tonight? [She] did not know a week ago she was going to be doing this.” Madeleine Corliss, originally slated for the role of June, one of Cook County Jail’s “merry murderesses,” replaced Adriana Milbrath, who broke her foot, as lead Roxie Hart.

Audiences tend to bestow a little extra benevolence on a last-minute understudy thrust into the spotlight, but will go downright nuts for a good one. The role of Hart is a wildly difficult role to understudy. Not only must the dance moves be performed with intense commitment and precision, but numbers like the so-called “Press Conference Rag” require Roxie Hart to mouth her rehearsed alibi atop the knee of smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn as if she were a puppet. There is not a millisecond to spare for a fumbled word or a lukewarm gesture, and Corliss, sly and nimble, actually made it look easy.

It didn’t hurt that Corliss was swarmed on all sides by mad talent. Daisy Hobbs’ Velma Kelly was the showstopper the character was written to be — alternately vulnerable, steely and conniving. Hobbs was thrilling to watch as a dancer and as an actor and her deep-seated alto elevated the entire show. Maybe most lovely was her duet “Class” — a criminally underappreciated moment in the show — with Felicia Dinwiddie, an Augusta (Woodruff County) native who lent stellar side-eye and gravitas to the formidable role of Matron “Mama” Morton. Velma’s vocal range is a wide one, and Hobbs clearly spent loads of time with the score navigating a plan for each note, turning out what was probably the most polished, glittering performance of the evening. And that’s a high bar, with even the male and female ensembles brimming with style and skill.

Suffice to say: When dancers like
Anthony D. Bryant (Bailiff) are defying gravity in your dance corps, Matt Allen (Amos Hart) is sending shockwaves through the crowd by wiggling a white-gloved finger and Z. Spiegel (Mary Sunshine) is spoon-feeding empathy and coloratura to the audience from atop a catwalk, you’re pretty much aces.

What’s more, Director/Choreographer Ron Hutchins’ vision held back none of the fire and sex. (Hutchins was a longtime friend and collaborator of the late Rep founder Cliff Fannin Baker, who would no doubt have insisted on such an interpretation.) A successful “Chicago” is all lips and hips and heavy breath, and Hutchins’ cast was hot as hell, every shoulder roll and hip thrust done with wild intention and definition. Even better, a brilliant costumer (Trish Clark, according to the program) understood perfectly that some moves look better with little more than hats, skivvies and skin — and that when you add clothing later, it takes on meaning. All the Fosse moves were there, too; the use of the feathers and hats as props, the parts of the body moving independently of one another, the limp wrists, the acrobatic flourishes. In “Chicago,” everyone on stage needs to be strapped to the beat, whether or not there is a melody happening at that particular moment. Sung-through (and danced-through) phrases and exchanges have a rhythm of their own with little room for error; numbers like “We Both Reached for the Gun,” in which a hat-passing routine taken at increasingly faster cut times, mimicked a media frenzy with poignant physical metaphor.

The Rep’s production, too, made excellent use of the play’s grimy tendencies in its set, superimposing a catwalk with twin descending stairs in front of the building’s exposed backstage wall. “Chicago” aches for that sort of visual grease and sleaze; Fosse, who was always pushing the material to be darker and more cynical, was ever reigned in by his collaborators. (Thank the heavens that, in the process, we didn’t lose lines like this bit of braggadocio, delivered with bite and panache by Christopher Johnstone as lawyer Billy Flynn: “If Jesus Christ had lived in Chicago, and he had $5,000, things would’ve turned out different.”) And below the catwalk? The eight-piece band, positioned in the shadows at stage center for the entire show, was led with humor and precision by Music Director Michael Rice.

“The electricity in this room is, like, crazy,” Trice, onstage with dignitaries Mayor Frank Scott, Rep Board Chair Ruth Shepherd and U.S. Rep. French Hill, told the audience. “And that’s the thing you can only get with live theater."

After The Rep’s yearlong hiatus because of financial difficulties, the audience was starving for live theater, and “Chicago” was an absolute feast.

And so it went: The crowd that had already been bubbling with standing ovation energy the moment the words “Pop! Six! Squish!” had been whispered in the first act? It found release at the closing of the curtain, applauding not only the fact that the show was thrilling and gorgeous, or that every single person on stage burst at the seams with vigor and commitment, but that The Rep was back at it, with gusto to spare.


click to enlarge A newly christened Baker's Alley on opening night of "Chicago" - STEPHANIE SMITTLE
  • Stephanie Smittle
  • A newly christened Baker's Alley on opening night of "Chicago"

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