Reviewed by George Basler
You don’t have to be a cynic to like Chicago, but it sure helps.
There’s not an ounce of sentiment in the new production of the acclaimed musical now being staged at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott, and that’s the way it should be, because Chicago is one of the most caustic shows ever to be a hit on Broadwway. The musical’s world is one in which innocence gets crushed, goodness is for saps and corruption wins the day. Don’t look for “heart” because none of the main characters have one, even though the main character is named Roxie Hart.
At the same time, the satire on phony celebrity and the criminal justice system is achingly funny and features some of the best songs ever written by the celebrated duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Both the songs and humor are well represented in the Cider Mill production that, quite simply, is a smash. Chicago loses nothing of its razzle dazzle on the small Cider Mill stage. The cast is uniformly top-notch, and the direction and choreography by David Costa is first-rate.
The musical is based on a 1926 play of the same name by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote a series of sensational columns while covering the celebrated trials of two murderesses in the 1920s. The song lineup reads like a Kander and Ebb greatest hits list: “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango,” “When You’re Good To Mama,” “Mister Cellophane,” “Razzle Dazzle” and “Class,” to name just some of the tunes.
That’s a lot for performers to take on. To be successfull, Chicago requires performers who are triple threats. They have to be able to sing, dance and act.
The Cider Mill production’s cast succeeds in all three areas.
To begin with, the three leads do first-rate jobs in portraying characters you don’t want to meet in real life but are a lot of fun on stage. Meredith Van Scoy is convincingly conniving as Roxie, a murderess with big-time dreamswho’s on trial for killing her boyfriend. Tom Kremer is delightfully sleazy as Billy Flynn, her defense attorney. Shannon Roma DeAngelo is bold, brassy and bitchy as Velma Kelly, a fellow murderess and Roxie’s rival for public attention.
Still, the three leads don’t carry the show by themselves. Three main secondary characters — Amos Hart, Roxie’s nebish of a husband; “Mama” Morton, matron of the Cook County Jail, and Mary Sunshine, a “sob sister” newspaper reporter — are all featured prominently, and their roles have to be well performed.
The Cider Mill production is fortunate in this regard. All three secondary performers — Dustin Hirthler, Jessica Pullis and Melisse Weber — are excellent. A particular highlight for me was Hirthler’s performance of “Mr. Cellophane,” one of the few poignant moments in the show.
A third necessity is a strong ensemble. Its members must take on a series of roles — fellow inmates, news reporters and spectators. Their work is the backbone of the production, and 10 of the young performers are first rate. A special standout is Mallary Leigh Walton who plays the one accused murderess in the Cook County Jail whose is actually innocent. Of course, the character pays for her innocence by being the only character to end up on the end of the hangman’s rope.
Chicago is a very adult show which bluntly attacks American celebrity culture. Its tone may be off-putting to some. The glib cynicism and emotional coldness can be hard to take and a bit monotonous, and the production drags a bit at the end of Act I. But this is more than counterbalanced by the show’s strengths. The capstone is a hilarious courtroom scene that had the first-night audience on June 7 roaring. In the scene, Ben Williamson plays the dead boyfriend to great effect (don’t ask me to explain this, just go with it.)
In this day and age, when the no-talent Kardashians and the cretins of the Jersey Shore dominate the television airwaves, Chicago’s message certainly hits home.
Great job, Cider Mill!