Theater Review: ‘Chicago’ Still Knows How to Razzle-Dazzle

ChicagoEnsembleWelcome back to the Music City, Chicago. You still know how to razzle-dazzle us.

This is the fourth time the tour of the John Kander/Fred Ebb/Bob Fosse megahit musical has hit Tennessee Performing Arts Center, but the first appearance in Jackson Hall since May 2005. And it still has all that jazz.

Why? Well, it’s certainly hard to knock the book, music and lyrics by the aforementioned trio; the vaudeville-tinged show’s mixed results when it first opened on Broadway in 1975 improved with a Tony Award-winning 1996 revival (which included script adaptation work by David Thompson) that’s still playing – on Nov. 23 it will reach the second-longest Broadway run ever, passing Cats and only surpassed by The Phantom of the Opera.

Photo 3But while the entertaining pointed comment on fleeting fame – which was also turned into a highly successful Best Picture Oscar-winning film in 2002 – is undeniably a sturdy show, the performers still have to, well, execute each night. If Tuesday’s opening is any evidence, and I submit it is, they certainly do.

Bianca Marroquin (Roxie Hart) and Terra C. MacLeod (Velma Kelly) headlined the show when it was here in 2005; they’re back and have brought a new Billy Flynn with them in the person of multi-talented John O’Hurley, best known for his role in TV’s “Seinfeld” and a very memorable appearance on “Dancing With the Stars.” (For the uninitiated, Hart and Kelly are both accused murderesses in the Windy City during the 1920s and Flynn is the well-paid legal eagle with savvy for publicity and emotional appeals to juries to keep such women from the hangman’s noose. Chicago is based on a 1926 play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins which she based on her experiences covering the Cook County Jail’s “Murderess Row” for The Chicago Tribune.)

BiancaMarroquinasRoxieHartMacLeod and Marroquin were wonderful in 2005 and if anything are even better now. MacLeod owns the stage from the moment she steps out to begin “All That Jazz” at the top of the show, and makes us feel for her hardened but still vulnerable character; Marroquin handles such numbers as “Funny Honey,” “Roxie” and “Me and My Baby” with all the humor, spunk and sex appeal (among other charming traits) that her character demands. Their vocal dexterity makes the most of the score while their dance moves – laid down by Ann Reinking in the style of Fosse and recreated for this tour by David Bushman – alone and together with others are like sweet notes themselves.

The last time the tour was in Nashville we saw a pleasingly polished performance from Gregory Harrison (“Trapper John, MD” and the recently-cancelled “Reckless”) as Flynn; O’Hurley has polish too, as well as a devilish twinkle in his eye, impeccable comic timing and the commanding presence his silver-tongued shyster should have. His clear and very pleasing vocal instrument is finely displayed whether singing or speaking, particularly during the “We Both Reached for the Gun” press conference when he rapidly goes from speaking as Flynn to literally becoming his client’s mouthpiece. In that number, “All I Care About,” “Razzle Dazzle” and other moments the flamboyant Flynn has never been in better hands than he is with O’Hurley (and I saw James Naughton‘s excellent Tony-winning performance so I feel comfortable with that statement).

Roz Ryan’s voice victoriously trumpets “When You’re Good to Mama” as never-miss-a-deal Matron “Mama” Morton, and she has great chemistry with her cast mates and the audience (and, like Marroquin and MacLeod, she’s done the role on Broadway as well; in fact, she holds the record for the most performances of any leading actress in the show’s 18-year revival run). The intriguingly-initialed C. Newcomer is incredible (and very funny) as sob-sister columnist Mary Sunshine – I’m glad I wasn’t holding a glass when Newcomer sang “A Little Bit of Good.”

RozRyanasMamaMortonJacob Keith Watson plays Roxie’s long-suffering husband, Amos, with the right touches of sweetness and resignation, especially in his terrific “Mister Cellophane” lament. Matthew Winnegge is a hoot playing all the members of Hart’s jury. And the rest of the triple-threats in this tour ensemble bring the same top-quality work to their roles.

Music Director/Conductor Robert Billig has much more to do than wave his baton in this fourth-wall-comes-crashing-down production; he and his wonderful mix of tour and local musicians – Howard Levitsky, Nissa Kahle, Mike Lunoe, Amy Helman, Alan Suska, Tyler Mire, Bill Huber, Chris Dunn, Matt Davich, Randy Ford, Robby Shankle, Marty Crum, Eric Stephens and Paul Ross – are an integral part of the onstage action in their places up-center and know how to color every bit of the jazz-infused music they play.

Add the appealing minimalism of John Lee Beatty’s scenic design, the black-never-looked-better costuming by William Ivey Long, Ken Billington’s hellzapoppin’ lights and Scott Lehrer’s clarion sound to the other elements (tied into one heck of a theatrical present by David Hyslop based on Walter Bobbie‘s original direction) and you’ll know why Chicago’s return to TPAC still has all that jazz…and so much more. It’s definitely worth a return visit or a first look.

Photo 4Tennessee Performing Arts Center presents Chicago as part of the HCA/TriStar Health Broadway at TPAC series through Sunday in TPAC’s Jackson Hall (505 Deaderick St.). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Today-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Where: Tickets (starting at $25) are availableby visiting TPAC’s box office downtown, online by clicking here or by calling (615) 782-4040 (for group tickets please call (615) 782-4060). Note: This show contains mature themes and language. For more show info visit ChicagotheMusical.com.

*Photos by Paul Kolnik and Jeremy Daniel courtesy Chicago the Musical and TPAC.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).