So, you may ask, with CHICAGO playing right down the street from where I live, why would I take four planes and travel 3,065 round-trip miles to see Music Theatre Wichita’s production of the Kander-Ebb-Fosse masterpiece?
CHICAGO on Broadway may well be in great shape these days, but when I attended not so long ago it was tired to the point of exhaustion. Worse, during the entr’acte, one ensemble member came down to the lip of the stage, looked into the audience, extended his arms over his head, nodded to the crowd, began clapping in rhythm and stared down everyone as if to say “Join in – NOW!”
There’s a famous story about the opening night of THE MUSIC MAN; the audience began clapping in rhythm soon after the toe-tappingly appealing “76 Trombones” began. Believe me, Robert Preston did NOT come down to the footlights and demand that the first-nighters do it.
So to soothe my CHICAGO fix, I suspected I’d be better off in Kansas’ largest and most populous city where Music Theatre Wichita has been flourishing for nearly five decades.
In my 13 previous trips there, I’ve been stunned not only by the absolutely superior productions that producing artistic director Wayne Bryan has staged or supervised, but also by audiences that routinely number over 2,000 for most of the seven performances that five musicals receive each summer.
Once again, I was amazed at how much a cast (of 23) could achieve in only 10 days of rehearsal. If anyone doubts Parkinson’s Law – that work takes as long as the time you have to do it – he’d only need see what director-choreographer Brian J. Marcum achieved during the short period allotted him.
Zach in A CHORUS LINE – the musical that humiliated CHICAGO at the 1975-76 Tonys – demanded identical precision from his dancers. Marcum got that out of both his female and male ensemble members.
What paces he put them through! A shoulder shrug was immediately followed by a head thrust to the left, then a slithery step to the right, a splay of fingers and a spin around. Best of all, when Roxie’s “boys” acknowledged her upcoming “baby,” they removed their bowler hats, cradled them in their arms and rocked them as if soothing an infant.
Whatever the Seven Wonders of the Modern World are, Marcum’s production of CHICAGO should at least be a nominee for one of them.
It’s a tough show, yet MTW’s audiences that had seen the season start with THE SOUND OF MUSIC and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS nevertheless went for the ride and were wildly appreciative. Considering that multiple murders past and present aren’t whitewashed even by belly-laugh-filled lines and ravishing production numbers, CHICAGO must rank as Broadway’s darkest-ever musical comedy.
That’s why it had to be done as “a musical vaudeville,” as it’s always been advertised. Roxie Hart has some Helen Morgan in her, Billy Flynn some Ted Lewis. Mama Morton channels Sophie Tucker and Amos Hart does the same with Bert Williams. Had co-bookwriters Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse written it as a realistic musical with naturalistic sets, we’d resist it and justifiably complain that we didn’t have anyone to root for.
Out-for-money lawyer Billy is on the money when he says to out-and-out premediated murderer Roxie, “But you are some dumb common criminal.” Hence a fanciful take on the subject was required, and the two writers along with composer John Kander were wise to land on vaudeville – still around in the late ‘20s when CHICAGO takes place — to enhance and ameliorate their story.
Uncle Jocko in GYPSY predicted that kiddie acts would kill vaudeville, and perhaps that was one cause. But CHICAGO for the last 44 years has actually kept the art form alive. Where else today can you see a ventriloquist – a staple of vaudeville — but in “They Both Reached for the Gun”?
My, that’s a clever conceit. Billy doesn’t want Roxie to shoot off her mouth and tell the press that she shot her beau. (Heaven forfend that she tells the truth!) So Billy literally puts the words in her mouth which she apes.
Roxie here was Anne Horak. If she ever gets to do musical films — and so help me, Hannah, she deserves to — she’ll be great when she watches the rushes and matches her voice in the recording studio to what she’d “sung” on screen.
That was hardly Horak’s greatest achievement. She expertly made the journey that “Funny Honey” demands, going from casually appreciative when husband Amos is willing to lie for her to furiously castigating him after he learns that he’s been cuckolded and blurts out the truth.
Even from Row T in the 12,329 square-foot house, I could see Horak’s eyes sparkle many times during her “Roxie” soliloquy. Granted, she had a head start over most company members, for she’s occasionally played Roxie both on Broadway and on tour. Whether or not CHICAGO on West 49th Street is tired, Horak seemed freshly minted and crisp in a terrific performance.
She wasn’t the only pro imported from Broadway. Ellyn Marie Marsh, currently in PRETTY WOMAN, took a leave of absence to portray Velma Kelly and did so phenomenally. Marsh has an expressive face that’s somewhere between Dolores Gray’s and Eileen Heckart’s. In “Cell Block Tango,” when she told of the blood on her hands, her defiant stance was as foursquare as FOLLIES’ Ethel Shutta’s when she delivered “Broadway Baby.”
Hours after CHICAGO had closed, Marsh was on a plane back to New York to resume her role at the Nederlander for the show’s final three weeks. (She won’t be on unemployment for long; she’s already booked THE ROSE TATTOO which starts rehearsals not long after PRETTY WOMAN’s closing night party.)
Also on tap was the ultra-dapper, debonair, stylish and handsome David Elder as Billy. He did some fancy footwork in “Razzle Dazzle” and excelled with his Bing Crosby ba-ba-boo imitation in “All I Care About.”
(Although ostriches aren’t yet an endangered species, they must be fearing for their lives during this CHICAGO renaissance; in this number, Billy’s back-up dancers surround him with them.)
Local talent shone as well. Timothy W. Robu, who’s appeared in dozens of MTW productions, was Amos. When Billy told Amos that people would even purchase Roxie’s underwear, Robu showed the husband’s pain at realizing that everyone could look at what he alone should see.
The character has always been denied his exit music but Robu got exit applause for his tender take on the man. No one in the show truly acknowledges “Mr. Cellophane,” but this crowd knew he was there. Never in the 16 times that I’ve seen CHICAGO have I heard an audience go “Ohhhhh” in sympathy for Amos, but this one did on three separate occasions.
The applause that musical director/conductor Thomas W. Douglas received as he entered for the second act was of the Lifetime Achievement variety. He delivered what was needed for Kander’s
Kurt Weillish quality to “When You’re Good to Mama” and the almost-hymnlike melody for “Class” that plays against the lyrics’ hilarious vulgarity. The audience snapped to attention when Douglas started his orchestra to play Kander’s trademark vamps in “Roxie,” “I Can’t Do It Alone” and — oh, hell: all of them, with “All That Jazz” being the standout among the standouts.
Prisoners would often sing “If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly.” Altamiece Carolyn Cooper’s voice needed no wings to have Mama Morton’s vocalizations fly to the top of the theater and perhaps beyond.
Although contemporary audiences usually find operetta-ish sopranos hard to take, MTW’s even liked Mary Sunshine’s Shanghai-Tower-high vocal pyrotechnics, given that Serge Clivio did them so well.
Yes, Serge Clivio, not S. Clivio. CHICAGO has always kept from the audience that Mary Sunshine is actually played by a man and has used the performer’s first initial in place of his first name. Here the feeling was that CHICAGO has been around long enough (MTW did the show 16 seasons ago) that there was no point in trying to deceive the crowd.
And yet, because Clivio was more than passable as a woman – and perhaps because CHICAGO movie fans saw Christine Baranski in the role – there was some audible surprise when Billy revealed that “Things are not always as they seem.”
Since 1975, CHICAGO has ended with Roxie and Velma each being awarded a bouquet of roses for their work on “Nowadays” and “Hot Honey Rag” prior to their tossing one rose after another into the audience.
Not here. Perhaps keeping the bouquets intact was a cost-cutting move. But even if so, considering Anne Horak and Ellyn Marie Marsh’s extraordinary performances, they deserved to keep the roses.
“I’m older than I ever intended to be,” says Roxie — and CHICAGO is now older than it might have ever expected to be on Broadway, considering the less-than-stellar reviews and Tony wipeout that the original production received. And yet, of the last 530 months, CHICAGO has been on the New York City boards for 288 of them — including the last 273 straight. As it likes to say, it’s Broadway’s longest-running American musical – and that isn’t false advertising.
“In 50 years or so, it’s gonna change, you know,” goes a lyric in the show’s eleven o’clock number. In truth, far fewer than 50 years had to pass before musical theater changed. (You decide if it’s been for the better or worse.) Many Broadway historians state that The Golden Age of Musicals ended in the ‘60s. CHICAGO is one show that’s proof positive that the good times lasted longer. Brian J. Marcum and Music Theatre Wichita recently reiterated that. They may well have been a better ambassador for the show than the show at the Ambassador is.