Because Chicago is one of the most frequently-revived musicals (and deservedly so), and has been turned into a terrific movie, there’s not a lot original to say about the show itself. I daresay there aren’t many theatergoers attending the latest local incarnation, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia, who don’t come in knowing approximately what to expect: a sexy, sardonic, Brecht-and-Weill-inflected look at the culture of celebrity surrounding criminals in the 1920s, with dynamite vaudeville-based songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb and choreography that owes much to Bob Fosse. A critic’s discussion cannot turn on whether the show is good – everyone knows it is well-nigh perfect; instead all one can do is focus on the particular production.
I can happily report that this edition, directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, with choreography by Ilona Kessel, is fully up to Toby’s traditional professional standard and worthy of the show. This is a show that is not sure-fire in the sense that almost any cast and venue can do it. A sub-professional-quality production would probably be ghastly; on the other hand, if done competently, Chicago cannot fail. (By contrast, consider almost anything by Sondheim, where the absence of sound directorial choices can sink the show, be the cast and production never so impeccable.)
What the informed theatergoer will probably next want to know first is how are the leads, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart? Debra Buonaccorsi, as Velma, makes the most of the slightly smaller role, especially in her big solo dance-and-comedy number, I CAN’T DO IT ALONE, in which she tries in vain to persuade Roxie to team up with her. Buonaccorsi is the whole package: she can sing, she can dance, she can be funny, and she looks the part. Carole Graham Lehan as Roxie is a slightly less-obvious choice, since she clearly is a few years older than her character (as was Ann Reinking in the 1996 Broadway revival, let it be added); but this slight mismatch makes for an interesting interpretation. The voice is sultrier and less girlish than, say Renee Zellweger’s in the 2002 movie, but the anger at a world of celebrity that Roxie cannot penetrate (without killing someone at least) is more palpable. It works fine.
The second tier of characters is nicely filled out as well. Jesaira Glover, as Mama Morton, the venal jailer, slays in WHEN YOU’RE GOOD TO MAMA. Jeffrey Shankle applies the razzle-dazzle (as the lyrics demand) in ALL I CARE ABOUT and RAZZLE DAZZLE, and during the courtroom scene. As a lawyer, I’ve seen real-life attorneys pull virtually the same maneuver as Billy Flynn does to get past a leading-the-witness objection, and do it with less panache. Co-director Lawrence Munsey as the Master of Ceremonies and various other characters (including the corpse created by Roxie), frames the scenes with the right dry cynicism. Chris Rudy delivers the falsetto role of reporter Mary Sunshine without a crack in the vocal delivery.
The costumes, also by the multi-talented Mr. Munsey, are suitably lavish. Ms. Kessell’s choreography seems appropriately Fosse-ish, adapted to the theater-in-the-round that is Toby’s Columbia venue. And speaking of the venue, the sound design by Drew Dedrick seems to have coped better with the limitations of the auditorium than it did in a recent production of Rent criticized in these pages.
So this is a no-brainer for both audience and reviewer. Put on your most cynical mood, the one in which you laugh at the predictable folly, venality and dishonesty of the human race, mix it with your ear for Jazz Age syncopation and great singing, get your buzz on for chorines flouncing athletically and with rhythmic precision in their undies, and go!
Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville, by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets $48-$50. 410-730-8311, www.tobysdinnertheatre.com. Adult situations, mild vulgarity.