There might be no more perfect American musical than “Chicago.” It’s cynical, bawdy and bitingly funny. It takes aim at corruption and greed and the belief that there is no such thing as bad publicity. It has the audacity to take murderers and have them not only get away with it, but also turn their notoriety into success.
There’s a reason the 1996 revival of the John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse show is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history at 9,674 performances and counting: The music is fantastic, the choreography classic and the story still relevant despite being set in the 1920s, originally created in the 1970s and revived in the 1990s.
A national tour of the show breezed through Spokane this weekend and on Saturday night wowed a nearly sold-out house at the First Interstate Center for the Arts. The performers, many of whom are embarking on their first national tour, were spot on, displaying a level of talent we don’t typically see in these non-Equity tours.
“Chicago” centers on a couple of murderous women, vaudevillian Velma Kelly (Logan Floyd), who found her husband and her sister in bed together and dispatched them both, and Roxie Hart (Mollie Downes), a chorus girl married to the sad sack Amos (Brian Kalinowski), who shoots her lover when he threatens to leave her.
When Roxie is booked into jail, she’s introduced to the “six merry murderesses” of the Cook County Jail. We meet them all during a dynamic production of “Cell Block Tango” – “He had it coming, he only had himself to blame,” they sing. The victims were cheaters or jealous louts or polygamists or merely annoying, our murderesses contend. One inmate bragged that her husband “ran into my knife. Ten times.”
The merry murderesses are under the watchful eye of jail matron Mama Morton (Nakiya Peterkin), who looks after her charges with varying degrees of grift. A phone call to the right person? That’ll be $50, thank you. Peterkin tackled the popular number “When You’re Good to Mama” with ease, displaying a command of the material and an excellent set of pipes. “In this town,” she says, “murder is a form of entertainment.”
The defense attorney Billy Flynn (Sam Hartley) is representing Velma but soon casts her aside for Roxie. He claims he does his work only for love. There’s a song about it, too, “All I Care About,” and Hartley sings it with plenty of charm. But of course his real motivation is fame – it’s everyone’s motivation in this show – and money, too. He gathers up the press, including “sob sister” Mary Sunshine (a scene-stealing J. Workman), to whip up sympathy for Roxie.
Because “Chicago” is so well-known and beloved – either from the stage show or the Oscar-winning film adaptation in 2002 – there are a lot of crowd-favorite numbers. As Velma, Floyd sets the stage for a good night with the opening number, the iconic “All That Jazz.” She brings a Jazz Age feel to her performance that was a joy to watch.
Downes’ Roxie is conniving, as she should be. Her great number, “Roxie,” as she fantasizes about her future as a celebrity, was pitch perfect. Another highlight was Amos’ number, “Mr. Cellophane,” in which he laments, “You can look right through me, walk right by me and never know I’m there.” Kalinowski brings the perfect balance of sweet and sad to his performance for a moment that is heartbreaking and funny. Hartley’s terrific “Razzle Dazzle” is sexy and over the top.
Music, of course, is the backbone of “Chicago.” Kander and Ebb created an impressive foundation of songs that don’t really have a wrong note in them. Bringing these songs to life in Spokane was a swinging 10-piece band under the direction of Cameron Blake Kinnear. Not only is the band onstage in “Chicago,” they also dominate it, sitting in a large bandstand center stage, which is the dominant set in the show.
Fame is what our murderesses all seek, something to leverage sympathy with the juries and launch new careers in entertainment. And in 2020, when we’re still watching real housewives, naked and afraid campers and “influencer” families on our televisions, it’s clear that as a culture our quest for fame and notoriety is never satiated. “Chicago” gets that, and when Mama Morton and Velma sing, “Whatever happened to class,” in “Class,” you realize they make a good point.
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