Review: All that jazz in SHN’s ‘Chicago’ still sounds great

Terra C. MacLeod as Velma Kelly leads a fierce group of performers in "Chicago," at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco through Nov. 16th. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)
Terra C. MacLeod, center, as Velma Kelly leads a fierce group of performers in “Chicago,” at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco through Nov. 16th. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

The John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse masterpiece “Chicago” certainly covers a lot of bases, a showcase for plenty of mediums. You name it; it’s there – powerful choreography, strong vocals, plot twists aplenty and a wonderful orchestra. And while the 2002 movie is superb, the stage play functions very differently. Devoid of big flash or spectacle, the strength of the show lies in its ability to tell a compelling story.

The production that has taken root at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco through Sunday, Nov. 16th is certainly on par with the production I saw 10 years ago on Broadway. I was even treated to Roz Ryan again from that New York production. Ryan slips on the familiar shoes of Matron Mama Morton on the current tour, and is certainly in fine form.

“Chicago” is a fierce examination of celebrity culture, and how stars are made based on notoriously bad events. While today, Kim Kardashian’s sex tape propelled her into a life of tabloids and even a spot on “Dancing with the Stars,” murder is the chosen vehicle that has led the vaudevillian into stardom in the prohibition-era 1920’s.

The story follows the dastardly exploits of Velma Kelly (the limberrific Terra C. MacLeod) and establishes clearly her substantial performance chops. While she now sits on death row for the murder of her husband and sister, whom she found spreading their eagles together, a wide-eyed wannabe star Roxie Hart (gentle giant Bianca Marroquin) also gets life in prison for the murder of her lover Fred Casely (Bradley Gibson).  Only her gullible, translucent husband Amos (a sentimental Jacob Keith Watson) can save her from a sure hanging, and scratches up enough scratch to hire celebrity sleazeball lawyer Billy Flynn (a dazzling John O’Hurley). Victory is all but guaranteed in the eyes of Flynn, because as he states, “If Jesus Christ lived in Chicago, things would have turned out differently.”

A wonderful cast certainly strikes powerful cords throughout the production. And while not every number was nailed perfectly (“Cell Block Tango” fell a bit flat and “Class” is not a favorite), the show certainly did much to bring about the Kander and Ebb score to life, led wonderfully by playful music director/conductor Robert Billig.

The ensemble does a lot to create that dark, underground atmosphere, showcasing magnificently the Fosse-inspired choreography of Ann Reinking. They also do well to create other smaller characters throughout the story. Leading those characters is Watson, who absolutely nails “Mr. Cellophane,” especially that tear-inducing final line that always gets me.

John O'Hurley as "Billy Flynn" (SHN photo)
John O’Hurley as “Billy Flynn” (SHN photo)

One thing that helps contribute to such a stylized play is the sheer sexiness that oozes from every scene. The cast wears lots of fishnets, sharp heels and shirts that look painted on. It does much to create this sexualized world the characters inhabit. Dancers don’t dance across the stage as much as they slither slowly, each move highly calculated and razor-sharp.

Velma is certainly a leader in this movement. Very early on, it’s clear what the social order is on the stage. She is on top of the food chain to be sure, a perverse starlet that others strive to be.

This includes Roxie, who couldn’t be more naïve about what it takes to be one of these leaders of the stage. She bumbles awkwardly around the space, searching high and low for sex appeal. And when she makes the discovery on what it takes to be a star after committing a highly publicized murder, she wears it as tight as the shirts of the male chorus.

As Velma and Roxie, both MacLeod and Marroquin own their stuff. MacLeod is graceful, yet authoritative. And Marroquin’s portrayal is full of range. Her initial awkwardness as Roxie creates an awesome contrast when Roxie absolutely nails her moments, especially in charming soliloquy “Roxie,” a number that showcases every ounce of her likability.

The role of Flynn is also a great vehicle for O’Hurley, who brings to the proceedings a handsome, charming face and all the makings of a classic song and dance man. His smarmy confidence is what made his role on Seinfeld as coat mogul J. Peterman so memorable. He is wonderful in “All I Care About” and he and Marroquin, along with the rest of the ensemble are magical in “We Both Reached for the Gun.”

“Chicago” is so successful because of its purity and a throwback to the Broadway simplicity of a great story told by a great cast with great music. When it gets right down to it, nothing else really matters. Just keep playing all that jazz, and let the rest take care of itself.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHNSF presents “Chicago”
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
The Word: The appeal of “Chicago” lies not in the spectacle, but in the purity of a compelling story and great music, which this production certainly has.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street (at 8th) San Francisco, CA 94102.
Aug. 15th – Sept. 28th
Tickets range from $40 to $210
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Online: www.chicagothemusical.com
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

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