By Ian Rigg
It was cold. It was October.
It was raining that night in this cesspool we call a city; and I was still up, with nothing to do but stare into the bleak emptiness outside my office window.
That’s when I got a message from the chief. Said he wanted me to check out some show called Wicked City by the new Chicago Theatre Workshop. Said, “Damn it Rigg, you’re a loose cannon, but you’re the best man I got. I need you to go investigate.”
I took the case. Anything to alleviate my soul-crushing boredom, and keep the landlady off my back.
I just gotta say, Wicked City was really great. I had a real good time.
I lead an exciting life. I take cases from women who are as mysterious as they are beautiful. I try not to fall in love with them. Their cases are always more than what they seem, and someone tells me to drop it (typically at gunpoint). That only makes me want to solve it more. On a typical Tuesday there’s at least three thugs trying to kill me. On an average Wednesday I get framed for murder. I often get clunked over the head and wake up tied to a chair in a dim basement where someone reveals their sinister plot and has their goons beat me.
People say my life’s like one o’ them old detective movies. So is this parody and pastiche from Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar.
Much like a film noir, Wicked City is slick, smart, stylish, sarcastic, slinky, sneaky, scintillating, sinful: all those things we hold so near and dear to our hearts. It’s a crazy caper with every cliche in the book. I’ll let you solve this mystery on your own. I ain’t no stool pigeon. I cracked the case wide open early on, and it got a bit confused in the tone department at the end, but it was nice seeing all that jazz unfold for a change. There’s plenty of clues throughout the smartly-written show, so you can try being a gumshoe, too.
All of this ain’t criticism at all. I’m in love with the show like a congressman’s in love with dirty money. It’s all by design, and all so well-executed it should be on the mafia’s payroll.
This is one well-oiled operation. Man oh man, that’s some simply superb creative team. I’d say these cats were co-conspirators more than they were coworkers. And that’s saying something for a new company’s inaugural production.
The head honcho is director and choreographer Christopher Pazdernik. I’d investigated him on my beat before (rummage through my case files for High Fidelity by Refuge Theatre Project. It got me.) While Wicked City itself isn’t as tonally heartfelt as some previous work, it’s clear a hell of a heart went into it. This is a man who knows what he’s doing. He sets his actors up for success. His dance moves pop with polish. He makes a story sing. It’s nifty to see him try his hand at something less sincere, more sinister, stylized and equally as entertaining. Under Pazdernik’s deft direction, Wicked City is a riotous knockout. It’s a perfect blend, benefiting from the tone of film noir, while simultaneously lambasting it. He got me so inspired, I started using $5 words. If Pazdernik keeps killin’ it, the fuzz’ll start to suspect they’ve got a serial on their hands.
He certainly ain’t alone in his efforts. Musical Director Dustin L. Struhall keeps this jaunty, jiving jazz score simmering. He coaxes real brilliance out of the performers.
Nick Sula sharply and smartly spins his own original orchestrations and vocal arrangements off of Sklar’s score. They really pop off the page. Bill Morey’s costumes are absolutely delicious. The cast looks like they were abducted out of a ’40s detective movie. Jo Van Cleave’s costumes are particularly fabulous.
The genius of Jennifer Kules’ lighting design lies in what remains unlit: film noir is all about shadow, and Kules expertly plays with that chiaroscuro effect. Christopher N. Tisone manages the seamless production without a hitch. Jacob Young wrangles all the period props and runs the sound board deftly, balancing vocals and keeping Robert Hornbostel’s rich sound design crackling.
John Rotonda devises a simple but effective industrial set. It fits the tone and any situation it needs to: moving steel staircases becoming fire escapes and jail cells, framing a marvelous meta billboard/projection screen. Brock Alter sets the tone of the whole shebang with top-notch projection design. There are moving animations establishing locations, a fabulous combination of chiaroscuro and neon, and even short filmic sequences shot like an actual ’40s film.
In typical film noir, dialogue is clipped. Short phrases. Loaded with lingo. Not sure where it comes from. But the Wicked City actors have command of that character. Command so cool you could use it to ice somebody. They know when to underplay. And when to completely overplay this farcical, fatalistic film noir full of character turns.
Leading man Javier Ferreira is a capable crooner and a real cool cat. As Humphrey Bogart surrogate Eddie Cain, he has the chiseled charisma you expect from a hardboiled detective. He keeps his smashing performance smartly understated, knowing when to pull his punches and when to pull out the stops.
Rashada Dawan is a a delight as fortune teller Madame Theresa, who frames the story as she’s pulled in for questioning. Blind, with a brassy timbre, she had a ball, narrates the show and blows audiences’ eardrums away.
The ensemble covers many roles and excels. Jason Richards as several stock stereotypes manages to elevate them as much as he sends them up, and his physical comedy was hilarious. The vile Mayor Lawton and Irish cop Malloy are particularly memorable. Grizzled Gabriel Fries got the film noir parody memo as beleaguered Inspector Hammett. Co-choreographer Kim Green deserves mention for her unwavering expressiveness and deadpan deliveries.
Dana Tretta as the overbearing Mira Cain has the most expressive, shifty eyes of anyone onstage. She may well be having the most fun onstage, too and is certainly a joy to watch.
In a performance to remember, Lauren Roesner slays as the dame with disaster on her lips, Jo Van Cleave. She sashays onto the stage like a tigress into a Burmese orphanage. She has bad news written all over her like October of ‘29, with timing even better than that of the brokers who pulled out in September. Roesner’s dramatic turn makes you feel like a banker on a window ledge that November. With a speaking voice perfectly tuned to the genre and a singing voice perfectly tuned to an angel’s harp (but pining for Lucifer), Roesner dominates every second she’s onstage.
With a wickedly funny inaugural production of Wicked City, Chicago Theatre Workshop proves they’re a company to keep an eye on. I have a hunch I’ll be investigating them again.
Chicago Theatre Workshop presents “Wicked City” through October 30 at the Edge Theatre, 5451 North Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets ($40 – $42) are available here.