To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, “Everything’s coming up Chicago” these days. Still going strong at 6000+ performances on Broadway, the musical smash is at long last lighting up regional and community theater stages, giving directors, choreographers, performers, and designers the chance to put their own stamp on the John Kander/Fred Ebb classic.


Torrance Theatre Company is the latest to benefit from getting the long-awaited rights to Chicago, and the results are often quite dazzling, particularly for a non-Equity production.

Director Kari Hayter and her design team have eschewed the minimalist black-and-white, orchestra-on-stage 1996 revival look for bursts of color and a striking four-level set that helps make the production a visual feast. As for its two stars, a pair of very young leading ladies show off triple-threat talents that may well lead to their own names on a Broadway marquee. Remaining constant are Chicago’s story and songs, the same ones that first thrilled Broadway audiences over thirty-five years ago.

It’s late 1920s Chicago, and vaudeville performer Velma Kelly (Micaela Martinez) 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 ditzy chorine Roxie Hart (Shauni Gerner), accused of murdering her paramour Fred (Jayson Puls) following a lovers’ quarrel. Though guilty as sin, Roxie convinces her patsy husband Amos (Thomas Steele) 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 (Steve De Forest), 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 (Analise Castellanos), ever willing to help a nubile inmate in exchange for sexual favors, and sob sister crime reporter Mary Sunshine (Rachael Meyers), 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.

Though the show opener “All That Jazz” doesn’t match the precision and pizzazz it did in a pair of Chicagos reviewed here recently, the Torrance Theatre Company production quickly takes wings with “Cell Block Tango,” featuring a sizzling sextet of accused murderesses perched high up on scenic designer Matt Scarpino’s multi-level scaffolding, lit blood red by crackerjack designer Steve Giltner, and terrifically choreographed by CSUF faculty member Lett.

Torrance’s sensational Roxie and Velma are products of Cal State Fullerton’s prestigious Musical Theatre BFA program, Gerner a recent grad and Martinez entering her senior year. Though each is a good decade or so younger than the roles are usually cast, Gerner is virtually the same age as the real life inspiration for Roxie was at the time of her arrest, and both triple-threats are such powerhouse talents that they more than make up for any age discrepancy. Gerner is an absolute delight as peroxide blonde Roxie and Martinez gives oodles of of oomph to the vampy Velma. Together they burn up the stage in the Act One finale “My Own Best Friend,” and bring down the final curtain with a bang with the one-two punch of “Nowadays” and “Hot Honey Rag,” the latter featuring Bob Fosse’s legendary original choreography.

De Forest brings decades of experience and showmanship to the role of Billy, while Castellanos’ commanding work as Matron Mama belies her youth. (She too is a CSUF senior.) Steele is a nicely clueless Amos in “Mr. Cellophane,” Puls makes a strong impression as murder victim Fred, and Meyers is a towering beacon of goodness as Little Mary, though this reviewer misses the 11th Hour surprise the role’s customary nontraditional casting guarantees. As for the quintet of beauties who join Martinez for the showstopping “Cell Block Tango” (Chelsea Baldree as Hunyak, Melisa Cole as Mona, Kristian Espiritu as June, Alli Miller as Liz, and Bernadette Anne Tyra as Anne), they are all five terrific, as is Master Of Ceremonies John Fugatt, who also plays Foreman and Doctor.  Baldree’s Act Two “rope trick” is a stunner, as are Christina Ritchey’s and Chad Sumen’s graceful, daring aerial feats. (Ray Pierce and Tania Holt are aerial consultants.) Completing the overall fine cast are Lucas Garcia, Elizabeth Gavalda, Edward Jenkins (Harry), Michael Grenie (Sgt. Fogarty/Judge), Danny Marin (Harrison), Niko Montelibano, Christopher Smith, and Lorne Stevenson (Aaron/Reporter).

Director Hayter and choreographer Lett bring to Chicago the same imagination and flair they did to last December’s brilliant CSUF production of Rent. Gerner’s seated “Tap Dance” confession earns oohs and aahs as do the diaper-clad backup dancers in “Me And My Baby.” Best of all is the Hayter/Letts’ reconception of “Razzle Dazzle” as a razzle-dazzling circus number featuring the entire cast in Big Top regalia, a motif carried over into the ensuing trial sequence.

The production benefits enormously from a first-rate pit orchestra under the baton of musical director/1st keyboardist Bobby Nafarette. Costumes by Bradley Lock enhance the visual panache of Scarpino’s set design and Giltner’s lighting. Amplification/mixing of vocals and instrumental accompaniment went off without a hitch on Opening Night. Michael Vitale is stage manager, Michael Aldapa associate producer/wig master, Sasha Stewart associate producer, and Gia Jordahl producing artistic director.

Having enjoyed Torrance Theatre Company’s 2008 production of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, this reviewer was even more impressed with this year’s summer musical extravaganza, one that sets the bar high indeed for the remaining 2011-2012 offerings. With ticket prices a mere fraction of what you’d be paying on Broadway, and a pair of stars who may well be on their way to the Great White Way, Chicago in Torrance guarantees audiences plenty of bang for relatively few bucks—and you can’t do much better than that.

James Armstrong Theatre, 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance.

–Steven Stanley
August 13, 2011

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