Review of “Chicago” at The Muny

    As distinguished as its return to the stage has been, The Muny has saved the best for last with its season finale, the Kander and Ebb masterpiece, Chicago. The musical about sensational murders receives a sensational production.

    The show focuses on two women accused of murder in a fictionalized version of Jazz-Age Chicago, where the press eagerly fed the popular demand for lurid details about crime. In an unusual piece of casting, J. Harrison Ghee plays one of the murderers, Velma Kelly.

    Ghee made his Muny debut in 2019 in Kinky Boots as Lola, the drag performer whose need for sturdy high-heeled shoes is a key driver of the plot. Ghee has all the talent and technique required to make Velma a magnetic character and a formable rival for the other featured murderer, Roxie Hart.

    At the outset, Velma is the darling of Chicago’s tabloid scandal machine and an old hand at using publicity for personal gain. Velma’s dominance is threatened by the arrival of Roxie, whose cold-blooded murder of her lover is shown in the second scene. Roxie succeeds in supplanting Velma through a combination of good luck, knowledgeable representation, and the fickle public’s thirst for novelty. Sarah Bowden succeeds as Roxie though a combination of excellent singing, dancing, and acting.

    Roxie’s representatives include her lawyer, Billy Flynn, played by James T. Lane, and the matron of her cell block, “Mama” Morton, played by Emily Skinner. Both characters are experts at exploiting a system that turns murderers into celebrities. Both performers are top-notch interpreters of their parts. So are Adam Heller as Roxie’s husband, Amos, and Ali Ewoldt as the tabloid columnist, Mary Sunshine. Heller makes Amos the saddest of sad sacks. Ewoldt displays the same star quality that made her a splendid Maria in The Muny’s most recent West Side Story.

    As much as I admire the minimalist revival of Chicago that has played on Broadway and toured nationally since 1996, I’m delighted with The Muny’s large-scale take on the show. Tim Mackabee’s scenic design turns The Muny stage into a night club with a massive set of stairs leading up to a proscenium arch surrounding the rear video screen. Roxie and Velma’s story is the floor show in this venue.

    Shawn Duan’s video design continually adds specificity to the setting. The falling curtain effect is especially impressive. Emily Rebholz’s costumes give each member of the ensemble a distinctive, pleasing look, as opposed to the uniformity of the Broadway revival. Also noteworthy are Rob Denton lighting, John Shivers and David Patridge’s sound, and Tommy Kurzman’s wigs.

    Denis Jones’s direction and choreography have admirable clarity, vitality, and glamour. The great number, “Razzle Dazzle,” lives up to its name in this memorable staging.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Phillip Hamer