When a Broadway musical settles in for a long run on the Great White Way, it’s a pretty sure bet that your local big city CLO won’t be producing its own regional production for a good long while. That’s why you’re unlikely to see Musical Theatre West or Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities presenting Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Phantom Of The Opera, or Wicked anytime soon. That’s also why Inland Valley Repertory Theatre’s production of Chicago is big news indeed.

Closing in on 6000 performances, the Kander & Ebb mega-revival has been dazzling New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors for nearly fifteen years now, and stay-at-home Angelinos wanting to experience Chicago have had either to rent the movie adaptation or to wait for a Broadway National Tour to arrive in town, a wait that can sometimes add up to years.

In attaining the rights to Chicago, IVRT doubtless had in its favor the fact that it stages its productions in off-the-beaten-track Claremont, where a National Tour is unlikely to stop any time soon … if ever. And though the drive may take longer than a theatergoer’s usual to-and-from commute, for true musical theater lovers, IVTR’s terrific production will likely prove well worth the trek.

Taking its cue from the 1996-present Broadway revival, Inland Valley Rep’s production eschews the glitz of the 1975 original’s costumes and sets, sticking to the revival’s minimalist approach—orchestra onstage, a stark black scenic design, and cast garbed in sexy black body-hugging dance gear.

Otherwise the story and songs are the same as those which Broadway audiences first thrilled to over thirty-five years ago.

It’s late 1920s Chicago, and vaudeville performer Velma Kelly (Tomasina Abate) is awaiting trial for allegedly murdering her husband and sister, whom she caught canoodling in bed. Raven-haired vixen Velma is soon joined in the slammer by bleached blonde chorine Roxie Hart (Adrianne Hampton), accused of murdering her paramour following a lovers’ quarrel. Though guilty as sin, Roxie convinces her patsy husband Amos (Mike Eberhardt) that the man she shot to death was a burglar, and Amos agrees to take the blame for her crime. When slow-witted Amos finally puts two plus two together, he vows to leave his murderous spouse to fend for herself in jail. Roxie is arrested and sent to the Cook County Jail where Velma and a bevy of unrepentant murderesses await their day in court. Roxie soon learns that her only hope of acquittal is defense attorney Billy Flynn (Robert Hoyt), a flashy hotshot with a perfect track record for getting his clients off scot-free. News that Billy has taken on Roxie’s case doesn’t sit well with his other client Velma, who refuses share the spotlight with anyone, let alone a nobody like Roxie.

Completing the cast of principals are Matron “Be Good To Mama” Morton (Joanne Juliet Lapoint), ever willing to help a nubile inmate in exchange for sexual favors, and sob sister crime reporter Mary Sunshine (R. C. Sands), a woman who believes that every accused murderess has “a bit of good” in her, and takes it upon herself to make sure that Chicagoans’ sympathies remain firmly with Roxie Hart.

Though Roxie’s story (based on real-life 1924 Chicago hubby-killer Beulah Annan) has been around since Maurine Dallas Watkins’s 1926 play Chicago and the 1942 movie hit Roxie Hart, with Ginger Rogers in the title role, it took book writers Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse to come up with Chicago The Musical’s inspired concept—to stage Roxie’s (and Velma’s) stories as a vaudeville show, with precisely the kind of musical numbers that the two vaudevillians themselves would have performed. It’s no wonder, then, that composer John Kander’s and lyricist Ebb’s songs make for one big, brassy production number after another, with song after song now part of our musical theater lexicon: “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango,” “When You’re Good to Mama,” “Roxie,” “My Own Best Friend,” “Mr. Cellophane,” “Razzle Dazzle,” “Class,” “Nowadays,” and more.

IRVT’s production of Chicago benefits enormously from the savvy direction and imaginative Fosse-inspired choreography of Jeff Teague, and from the first-rate cast assembled at the Candlelight Pavilion, many of whom have been braving a long commute over the past two months’ rehearsals for the joy and honor of being among the handful of regional musical theater performers to get the chance to razzle-dazzle audiences with the roles and tracks Kander, Ebb, and Fosse have created for them.

Hampton is a petite fireball as Roxie, cute as a button and talented to boot, and Abate matches her every step of the way, two triple-threats in two of the greatest female song-and-dance roles in the history of the Broadway musical. Cast against traditional leading man type as Billy is opera singer Hoyt, whose powerful pipes add to a big, showy performance that works. Scenie-winning coloratura Sands once again proves to be a consummate scene-stealer as Mary Sunshine. Eberhardt is a fabulous Amos, so mousy in early scenes that his big number “Mr. Cellophane” comes as an honest-to-goodness out-of-the-blue show-stopper. Lapointe makes for a brassy, macho prison Mama.

No Chicago can succeed without a topnotch dance troupe, and IVRT’s production benefits from the young talents being turned out by BFA programs, in particular AMDA’s Los Angeles campus. John Paul Batista, Nicci Claspell, Kim Eberhardt, Chaz Feuerstine, Liz Gandara, Chris Giroux, Gayle Jett, Bryan Martinez, Joey Nestra, Jenifer Olivares, Dylan Pass, Luis Alex Rodriguez, Katherine Washington, Jerry Wehry, and Michelle Zelina get thumbs up each and every one for their powerhouse work, with Claspell, Eberhardt, Gandara, Olivares, and Washington getting extra snaps for the “Hey Big Spender-eque” “Cell Block Tango,” and Giroux for his multiple-hat work as assistant choreographer and Master Of Ceremonies of the evening’s proceedings. All that prevents the ensemble from full effectiveness is the too youthful appearance of a few of the chorus boys, no reflection on their talents, but nonetheless not what you’d find in a Broadway or touring cast ensemble.

Under music director Ronda Rubio’s expert baton, the ten-piece onstage band provide sensational musical accompaniment. Equally splendid are Lisa Fullerton’s costumes, Daniel Moorefield’s lighting, and Claire Wehry’s properties. IVRT has the great good fortune of performing Chicago on Candlelight Pavilion’s Phantom set, which (as modified by Mark Mackenzie) could just as easily have been designed specifically for this show. Nick Galvan’s otherwise satisfactory sound design suffered from some mike problems on opening night.

Hope Kaufman is assistant director, Malakye Ayers and Collin Williams stage managers, Bobby Collins production manager, and Frank and Donna Marie Minano executive producers.

Following last night’s opener, Chicago performs a grand total of three more shows—one next Wednesday evening and a matinee and evening show the following Wednesday. And that’s it. One heck of a lot of work for a grand total of four performances, but when the musical in question is a regional theater rarity, it’s clear that every single cast member is giving his or her 110% to producing one heck of a show. Chicago closes all too soon on March 23, making this truly a case of snooze and you lose—Chicago big time!

Candlelight Pavilion, 455 West Foothill Boulevard, Claremont.
Click here for current performance schedule, closing date, and reservation line.
–Steven Stanley
March 9, 2011
Photos: Isaac James

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