It’s taken a good long while—over sixteen years to be precise—for the longest-running American musical in Broadway history to make it to our Southern California regional theaters. Then again, considering that Chicago is currently closing in on 7000 performances on The Great White Way, it’s a wonder theaters like Escondido’s Lawrence Welk don’t find themselves on a mile-long waiting list to get their hands on the Kander & Ebb mega-revival, all the more reason to head down south a ways and catch Chicago, smashingly up-close-and-personal at the Welk.

Jazz Finale  Taking its cue from the Walter Bobbie-directed, Ann Reinking-choreographed (“in the style of Bob Fosse”) Broadway revival, Chicago At The Welk 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 ensemble members garbed in sexy black body-hugging dance gear.

Otherwise the story and songs are the same as those which Broadway audiences first thrilled to nearly forty years ago:

It’s late 1920s Chicago, and vaudeville performer Velma Kelly (Natalie Nucci) is awaiting trial for allegedly murdering her husband and sister, whom she caught canoodling in bed.

Roxie 1 Raven-haired vixen Velma is soon joined in the slammer by bleached blonde chorine Roxie Hart (Adrienne Storrs), accused of murdering her hapless paramour Fred Casely (Manuel Rodriguez) following a lovers’ quarrel.

Though guilty as sin, Roxie convinces her patsy husband Amos (Shaun Leslie Thomas) 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 the Cook County Jail, where Roxie soon finds herself incarcerated with Velma and a cell block of unrepentant murderesses, all of them awaiting their day in court.

Roxie soon learns that her only hope of acquittal is defense attorney Billy Flynn (Randall Dodge), 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 to share the spotlight with anyone, let alone a nobody like Roxie.

Completing the cast of principals are Matron “Mama” Morton (Valerie Geason), ever willing to help a nubile inmate in exchange for sexual favors, and sob sister crime reporter Mary Sunshine (RC 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.

Mary 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.

jazz 1 The Welk’s Ray Limon directs and choreographs with abundant flash and panache (and a tip of the Fosse hat to its iconic original director-choreographer), making for a Chicago that’s been somewhat scaled-down to fit the Welk’s 339-seat dimensions, though at no loss in entertainment value or pizzazz.

It certainly helps to have on hand a crackerjack cast of seasoned pros and relative newbies singing and dancing and emoting at a level you’d expect at a regional theater two or three times the size of the Welk, beginning with the one-and-only Nucci, absent from our stages for the past several years while pursuing a “mommy track,” whose return is welcome news indeed. As anyone can tell you who saw her Scenie-winning Best Actress turns in a pair of Chita Rivera roles (Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie and the title role in Kiss Of The Spider Woman), Nucci is as dynamic and talented a triple-threat as they come, and her sassy, sensational performance as Velma (not surprisingly another Chita creation) is the best possible news for SoCal musical theater lovers.

As Roxie to Nucci’s Velma, recent USC grad Storrs makes a noteworthy professional debut on the Welk stage. Not only is Storrs a bang-up dancer, she’s got what they call a “signature voice” (hers is spiced with a sexy rasp) and shows considerable promise in dialog scenes that can only get stronger as Chicago’s run progresses. As for those Velma-Roxie duets, with Nucci and Storrs selling them for all their worth, “My Own Best Friend” and “Nowadays” earn the duo well-deserved cheers.

Billy The Welk lucked out in persuading Dodge to make it two in a row following his star turn in the 2013 season opener South Pacific. As charismatic and vocally gifted a leading man as they get, the former Emile de Becque proves himself the quintessential showman as Billy Flynn in “All I Care About” and “Razzle Dazzle,” in addition to his “ventriloquism” in the showstopping “We Both Reached For The Gun” with Storrs a perfectly in-sync “dummy.”

Geason has great fun with prison Matron “Mama” Morton, and sells “When You’re Good To Mama” and hilariously ribald duet of “Class” (opposite an equally game Nucci) with the best of them. Thomas follows his fabulous Luther Billis in South Pacific with a night-and-day different but equally marvelous performance as cuckolded sad-sack of a hubby Amos, earning a deserved ovation for his showmanship-rich rendition of “Mr. Cellophane.” Finally, there’s award-winning coloratura Sands, who just may be the best, most multicolored Mary Sunshine ever, and never more so than when trilling away in “A Little Bit Of Good.”

Cell Block 1

Providing sensational support as The Murderesses are sexy stunners Jebbel Arce (June), Emily Dauwalder (Mona), Sarah Errington (Hunyak), Brenna Fleeman-Delay (Liz), and Tracey Freeman (Annie), the fivesome not only topnotch dancers but bona fide triple-threats who along with Nucci make “Cell Block Tango” the Grade-A showstopper it’s supposed to be. Arce doubles as Bailiff and Freeman as Go-To-Hell Kitty, while San Diego treasure Errington creates half-a-dozen quirkily distinct (and distinctly quirky) jurors.

As for the boys, Hanz Enyeart (Aaron, Court Clerk), Danny Hansen (Fogarty, Harry, Judge), Andrew J. Koslow (Harrison, Doctor), and Rodriguez are every bit as sexy and stunning as the gals, Rodriguez getting the richest cameo as the very unlucky Fred Casely, Kaslow the sexiest top to wear, and all four do dandy work in their assorted cameos and dance moves.

Musical director Justin Gray conducts and plays keyboards in Chicago’s snazzy five-piece band—Kevin Esposito on trombone, Mark Margolies on reeds, Mick Masessa on drums and percussion, and Elizabeth Meeker on trumpet.

Paul Vanderjagt’s all-black, multilevel set design is simple but dramatically effective. Janet Pitcher’s costumes carry through the black-on-black motif (except for Mary Sunshine’s more colorful, frilly garb). Jennifer Edwards’ flashy lighting design, Patrick Hoyny’s pitch-perfect sound design, and Beverly George’s bevy of props (love those feathered fans!) are first-rate as well.

Chicago is produced by theater manager Joshua Carr. Edwards is assistant theater manager. Crystal Burden is crew.

Chicago At The Welk may be on a smaller scale and have a smaller cast (15 as opposed to 22) than Chicago On Broadway, but my educated guess is that it provides every bit the entertainment of its New York counterpart at considerably lower ticket cost (and each and every audience member within eleven rows of the stage). And “Nowadays,” who could ask for better than that!

The Welk Theater, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr, Escondido.

–Steven Stanley
March 23, 2013
Photos: Sharyn Sakimoto

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