The current Muny season is beginning with the same show that ended last season, the Kander and Ebb masterpiece, Chicago.
The Muny generally does not bring a show back until five years have passed since the last production. An exception is in order this year because last year’s superb staging of Chicago closed after only three performances. Rain and COVID-19 scuttled the other four.
The current staging is substantially the same as the one that recently won seven St. Louis Theater Circle Awards for musicals, including outstanding production and outstanding ensemble. Most of the onstage and offstage contributors are back including Theater Circle honorees
- Denis Jones as both director and choreographer
- Charlie Alterman as musical director
- Adam Heller as a supporting performer
- Emily Rebholz as costume designer
I reviewed last year’s Chicago on this website. I will draw liberally from that review for this one because every bit of praise I gave to the earlier production applies to this one, too. As before, 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 feeds the popular demand for lurid details about crime.
The first murderer to appear is Velma Kelly in the show’s signature opening number, “All That Jazz.” Velma is played by J. Harrison Ghee. He 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’s Lola earned a Theater Circle nomination, as did his Velma. Kudos to the Muny’s Mike Isaacson for recognizing that a great Lola would be a great Velma, too.
The imprisoned Velma is a pro at using publicity to make a place for herself in show business after the acquittal she is expects to receive. Velma’s plans go awry when a fresh face quenches the fickle public’s thirst for novelty. The new headline grabber is Roxie Hart, who cold-bloodedly murders her lover in the second scene. Sarah Bowden captures Roxie’s mercurial personality with brilliant singing, dancing, and acting.
To take advantage of the system that turns murderers into celebrities, Velma and Roxie must rely on their lawyer, Billy Flynn, and the matron of their cell block, “Mama” Morton. James T. Lane as Billy and Emily Skinner as Mama are terrific as rogues who help others only when they help themselves, too.
Billy and Roxie shamelessly exploit the trusting nature of her meek husband, Amos. Adam Heller’s delightful performance makes Amos the saddest of sad sacks. As the tabloid columnist, Mary Sunshine, Ali Ewoldt displays the same star quality that made her a splendid Maria in The Muny’s most recent West Side Story.
Tim Mackabee’s scenic design turns The Muny stage into a night club in which Roxie and Velma’s story is the floor show. A massive set of stairs leads up to a proscenium arch surrounding the Muny’s rear video screen. Shawn Duan’s video design continually adds welcome specificity to the setting. The falling curtain is an especially impressive video effect.
Emily Rebholz’s costumes give each member of the ensemble a distinctive, pleasing look. Also noteworthy are Rob Denton lighting, John Shivers and David Partridge’s sound, and Tommy Kurzman’s wigs.
Musical director Charlie Alterman and the Muny Orchestra richly deserve the credit they receive on the side video screens. 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.
J. Harrison Ghee and the cast of Chicago – Photo by Julie A. Merkle