CHICAGO


Just the thought of a community theater trying its hand at the Broadway megahit Chicago is probably enough to send most Kander and Ebb lovers scurrying in the opposite direction, that is unless the community theater in question is Santa Monica’s venerable Morgan-Wixson. As their productions of Urinetown: A Musical, A Chorus Line, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee have demonstrated, the folks at the Morgan-Wixson are more than capable of staging quality musical theater on a tight budget—without the benefit of Equity performers, blessed as they are with directors, designers, and technical staff who know their stuff, and the talent pool of an area as crowded with triple-threats as is Los Angeles.

 

While the Morgan-Wixson’s Chicago isn’t what you’ll see on Broadway (where the 1996 revival has now surpassed 6000 performances in its fifteenth year), it is nonetheless quite a show, and with tickets running about one-fifth of what it would cost to see the show in New York, one well worth seeing.

Though the Morgan-Wixson production reflects changes brought to the ’96 revival by its director Walter Bobbie, Chicago’s story and songs are the same as those which first thrilled Broadway audiences over thirty-five years ago.

It’s late 1920s Chicago, and vaudeville performer Velma Kelly (Krystal J. Combs) is awaiting trial for allegedly murdering her husband and sister, whom she caught canoodling in bed. Blonde vixen Velma is soon joined in the slammer by ditzy chorine Roxie Hart (Ayelet Firstenberg), accused of murdering her paramour following a lovers’ quarrel. Though guilty as sin, Roxie convinces her patsy husband Amos (Steve Hall) 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 (Kevin Yarbrough), 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 (Valerie Rachelle), ever willing to help a nubile inmate in exchange for sexual favors, and sob sister crime reporter Mary Sunshine (V. Perez), 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.

From the moment the sensational Combs and cast launch into “All That Jazz,” executing (choreographer) Combs’ Fosse-inspired moves with precision and pizzazz, you know you’re going to be in for one heck of a show. A savvy Combs is an expert at creating steps that make her ensemble of dancers and “movers” look like Broadway performers without making demands that only professional dancers could meet. And boy do the “amateurs” on stage at the Morgan-Wixson look darned close to pros, from that dazzling opener to “We Both Reach For The Gun” to “Razzle Dazzle.”

Director/musical director Anne Gesling has been staging productions at the Morgan-Wixson for twenty-five years now, and her experience and talent shine in Chicago, the current production taking its inspiration from both the 1975 original and the ’96 revival but not afraid to try something new.

As for the show’s two leads, Combs and Firstenberg couldn’t be more different, and the production is all the better for their lack of interchangeability. Eschewing the girl-next-doorness of her 2009 turn as (Thoroughly Modern) Millie, Combs is all poise, glamour, and panache, while Firstenberg plays Roxie with a goofy, gauche charm that startles at first and then seems absolutely right for the two-bit chorus girl turned fifteen-minutes-of-fame celebrity. Combs is particularly dazzling in “I Can’t Do It Alone,” which has her singing/dancing two parts at once, while Firstenberg is at her daffy best as a human ventriloquist’s dummy in “We Both Reach For the Gun.” Together, in “My Own Best Friend” and “Nowadays,” the duo make for a perfectly (mis)matched team—and earn deserved cheers.

Yarbrough proves a terrific showman as Billy Flynn, showing off first-rate song-and-dance skills in “All I Care About Is Love” and other numbers. The oh-so-talented Rachelle has great fun as prison matron Mama Morton, Act Two’s “Class” making for a hilarious duet with Combs. Perez is a deliciously campy Mary Sunshine showing off a gorgeous legit soprano in the operetta-spoofing “A Little Bit Of Good.” Hall’s take on Roxie’s patsy of a hubby makes him a much realer Amos than usual, and his rendition of “Mr. Cellophane” is particularly touching for it.

Making “Cell Block Tango” (aka “He Had It Coming”) every bit the show-stopper that it’s meant to be are Heather Biede (Annie), Holly Childers (Mona), Combs, Camden Gonzales (June), Michele McRae (Liz), and understudy Ashley Ann Stephens (Hunyak).

Among the ensemble, assistant choreographer Jonathon Saia does striking work as all six murder victims in “Cell Block Tango,” as dance soloist in “A Tap Dance,” and as each-and-every juror in Roxie’s trial, and deserves to be given an individual bow at curtain calls. Jayson Puls (Aaron) is another dance standout, and Brandon Stanford (Fred Casely), Marc Ostroff (Sergeant Fogerty), Brittany Vaughn (Go-To-Hell Kitty), and Deosick Burney (Martin Harrison) do very well in supporting and cameo roles. Brad Combs is a fine Master Of Ceremonies, though his live piano playing throughout the show is overpowered by prerecorded tracks to the point of inaudibility.

Completing the all-around first-rate ensemble are Steven Flowers (Tailor), Danielle Miller, Danielle Morris, Marc Ostroff (Sgt. Fogarty), Alex Pierdant (Bailiff), Laura Wennstrom Sheehan, and Steve Weber (Judge).

Thomas A. Brown’s multi-level, multi-purpose set design serves Gesling’s vision well, a center section popping out when more specific locations (bedrooms, police headquarters, Mama’s digs, etc.) are needed. Rodney Munoz’s costumes belie budget limitations, particularly with Busby Berkeley-ready feathered fans for “All I Care About Is Love,” and Vegas-ready plumed tails for “Razzle Dazzle.” William Wilday’s vivid, colorful lighting works wonders on Brown’s set and Munoz’s costumes.

Larry Gesling is stage manager, assisted by Courtland Budd and cast member Pierdant. Chicago is produced by Adrienne and Jessica Breslow.

Now that rights to Chicago are finally being released to theaters across the country, there may be justifiable concern that not all will be up to the musical’s considerable challenges. In a production they have been waiting years to stage, the talented folks at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre face these challenges head-on and pass the test with flying colors.

Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.
www.morgan-wixson.org

–Steven Stanley
June 25, 2011
Photos: Joel Castro

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