The Stratford Festival
Simple Math Equation: “If Roxie Rocks Chicago, does ‘Chicago’ Rock The Stratford Festival?”
You don’t have to look in the back of the textbook for that answer.
‘Chicago’ blows the roof off the Festival Theatre. It’s gonna sell out quickly so make sure you get your tickets while you can.
Once I heard the rights were attained to produce the show for the Festival’s unique thrust stage theatre and what Donna Feore calls in her Director/Choreographer Note: “the rare opportunity to completely reimagine the production [since] ‘Chicago’ is a big show, and dance is not locked in time.”, I was curious how she would stage the production since for me the definitive versions in my experience were the New York cast with Bebe Neuwirth and Joel Grey plus the touring production at the Princess of Wales years ago. Both excellent.
But a totally reimagined and re-staged ‘Chicago’?
Yes. A thousand times, yes.
Feore’s optimal staging of the plot with prizewinning, divine and to die for choreography work divinely and magnificently as every inch of the thrust Festival stage is utilized to maximum effect and capacity. There are musical moments where so much occurs, but it just reinforces Billy Flynn’s showstopper ‘Razzle Dazzle’ that life is a circus at times.
This entire company is having one hell of a good time and their contagion infected the audience so quickly.
It’s one time when I felt I didn’t care if I caught that boozy bug.
It is the 1920s. Vaudevillian wannabe Roxie Hart (Chelsea Preston) has fatally shot her lover Fred Casely (Chad McFadden). Claiming he was a burglar, Roxie convinces her dull mechanic husband Amos (Steve Ross) to take the rap. When Amos finds out the truth, he turns Roxie in where she is remanded to the Cook County Jail to await her trial.
It’s at the jail where Roxie meets Velma Kelly (Jennifer Rider-Shaw), a fading vaudevillian star who killed her husband and sister after discovering they committed adultery. Velma has slick defence lawyer Billy Flynn (Dan Chameroy) retained by prison matron Mama Morton (Sandra Caldwell) who offers to put Roxie in touch with him. Flynn agrees to take Roxie’s case as well after she persuades Amos to pay his substantial fee.
Michael Gianfrancesco has re-created a jaw-droppingly realistic speakeasy set from the 1920s. Even amid the sense of disorder on stage after a night at the club, there is a sense of order present. A ghost lamp appears centre stage. Tables are placed throughout and some chairs are overturned. Some glass bottles in cartons are also found on stage. Gianfrancesco’s set is two level as there is a rounded railing out front from which actors can be placed. Dana Osborne’s Costume Designs are fantastic recreations of the 1920s from flapper dresses to flashy loud pin-striped suits and matching vests. Michael Walton’s Lighting Design and Peter McBoyle’s Sound Design all contribute gratifyingly to the flash and dazzle of the era. A huge shout of appreciation and gratitude to Mr. McBoyle as well for the fact I could hear every single lyric in each musical number.
And the music!
That gloriously sexy-sounding music under Franklin Brasz’s direction evokes that heightened and gritty acute sense of smell in picking up the stale stench of booze, billowing cigarette and wafting cigar smoke that jutted out from these seedy nightclubs.
And those musical numbers!
The first note of ‘All that Jazz’ and the roar of applause which was repeated for ‘Cell Block Tango’ (and what an inventive way to involve the male dancers in that number). Chameroy’s entrance in ‘All I Care About Is Love’ is executed in such perfect timing the audience once again roared with approval.
As Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, Chelsea Preston and Jennifer Rider-Shaw initially may resemble kewpie-eyed bimbos out to make a fast buck in whatever way possible. No way! Preston and Rider-Shaw beautifully play Roxie and Velma not as vapid chorines but as intelligent and smart (and yes, sensitive, even though they both have committed murder) gals who work with Flynn to get what they want. And, as we all know with society’s fascination with celebrity behaviour, they get away with it and we love them even more for it.
Plus, a bonus with Preston and Rider-Shaw. The pipes on these ladies. They can belt a tune, parallel harmoniously in song, and carry out a Feore dance with splash and aplomb.
Underneath that “Sad Sack’ skin of Roxie’s dimwitted husband, Amos, Steve Ross radiates so much compassionate empathy (as R. Markus points out in a perfect diva Mary Sunshine reporter moment in their song ‘A Little Bit of Good’) that I wanted just to walk up there and give him a big bear hug right after his ‘Mister Cellophane’. Ross just inherently knew when to pause during the song both for comic and poignant effect. Such good work.
Dan Chameroy is primo slick as defence lawyer Billy Flynn that he would make it appear as if being swindled would be just fine. His eleven o’clock ‘Razzle Dazzle’ number that life is sometimes just for the ornate show brought down the house once more.
Beneath that smile of Sandra Caldwell’s Matron Mama Morton lies a deceptive individual who would sell her own mother to make a fast buck. I love the line “Ask any of the chickies in my pen/They’ll tell you I’m the biggest mother hen” from ‘When You’re Good to Mama’. Who really cares if Mama cares about these gals under her guard? She’s out to make a fast buck like all those individuals in Cook County to get themselves out of the prison, and they’re having a hell of a good time in the process. That’s all that counts to them.
This five-star hot, torrid, athletic and kinetic ensemble tackles Feore’s choreography with great gusto and hearty aplomb. From what I could see from my seat, every dance move was also keenly connected with facial and eye contact that radiated passionate licentiousness. Feore’s choreography remains one of the highlights of the production, and it appeared to me this ensemble wanted to do justice to the work.
Final Comments: If you have seen the New York/touring revival of ‘Chicago’ now playing in New York or on tour, you owe it as a treat to yourself to come to Stratford before the door of this speakeasy is closed.
“Chicago is a winner. Dynamite from beginning to end. Flawless in performance.”
Running Time: approximately two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.
As of the writing of this article, Covid protocols are in effect at the theatre.
‘Chicago’ runs to October 30 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford. For tickets, www.stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.
Chicago, based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins with script adaptation by David Thompson
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Producer: Dave Auster
Director and Choreographer: Donna Feore
Music Director: Franklin Brasz
Set Designer: Michael Gianfrancesco
Costume Designer: Dana Osborne
Lighting Designer: Michael Walton
Sound Designer: Peter McBoyle
The Company: Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Chelsea Preston, Chad McFadden, Steve Ross, Stephen Patterson, Bethany Kovarik, Amanda Lundgren, Heather Kosik, Bonnie Jordan, Celeste Catena, Sandra Caldwell, Dan Chameroy, R. Markus, Amanda De Freitas, Devon Michael Brown, Philip Seguin, Gabriel Antonacci, Robert Ball, Henry Firmston, Jordan Mah, Eric Abel, Jason Sermonia, Julius Sermonia