By Barry Reszel
If one listens closely, he or she may hear it.
Sultry Velma opens,
“Come on, babe
Why don’t we paint the town?”
“Come on,” they whisper-echo back.
“I’m gonna rouge my knees
And roll my stockings down,”
she continues, teasing.
“Hi-dee-hey! Baby don’t you wanna go?”
They complement without competing.
“Where the gin is cold
But the piano’s hot!”
Maureen Dallas Watkins‘ murderess belts John Kander‘s music, Fred Ebb‘s lyrics.
“Back to that same old place,” the Blues Brothers rock back.
Sweet home, Chicago!”
Perhaps it’s just coincidence the quintessential Chicago musical is roaring out its 1920s smack dab between the Cook County Jail (setting of the show) and the Joliet Correctional Center (onetime gathering place of Jake and Elwood Blues).
But with Drury Lane Theatre’s exclusive rights to revitalize the sensational Broadway mega-hit with hometown authenticity comes the opportunity to summon more than a few of Chicagoland’s fictional ghosts, even if they don’t appear to give the female inmates a rousing rendition of “Soul Man.”
Chicago, the longest-running American musical on Broadway, is based on a 1926 play by Tribune reporter Watkins, who covered the 1924 trials of celebrity murderesses Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, models for her characters Roxie and Velma. Set against the backdrop of the 1920s jazz age and changing views on women’s liberation, the cases involving women killing their lovers or husbands are used to satirize the corruption of the criminal justice system. A full history, synopsis and listing of Chicago awards and accolades may be found here.
With Bob Fosse protégé Jane Lanier‘s stunning choreography and Roberta Duchak‘s steady choral direction both expertly executed by the lithe, ghostlike ensemble, patrons are appropriately allowed to focus on Director William Osetek‘s three leads. Each of them provides enough of the ole razzle-dazzle necessary for a tremendous night of musical theater.
Aléna Watters opens the show as murderess veteran Kelly, looking like a sexy Rockette and riveting the audience with her “Sheba shimmy shake…and all that jazz.” She then dazzles with a curt, streetwise persona, the perfect foil to newbie murderess Roxie Hart’s innocent narcissism. Extraordinarily well played by the lovely Kelly Felthous, Osetek’s Roxie extracts every ounce of syrup from “Me and My Baby” as she hardens and learns from her time in prison.
The third of the leading players’ triumvirate is Guy Lockard as lawyer Billy Flynn. A distinguished triple threat, Lockard delivers a truly memorable performance that shows off his wealth of talent. In particular, his dulcet vocals in “All I Care About is Love” and the creatively staged “We Both Reached for the Gun,” both in act one, are take-away highlights.
So , too, is the well-known “Cell Block Tango,” performed by Waters and female members of the ensemble, along with the overall magnificent portrayal of prison maven Mama Morton by E. Faye Butler. Her “When You’re Good to Mama” is alone worth the price of admission. Additional kudos go to Justin Brill for his tender portrayal of Roxie’s doormat husband Amos. His “Mr. Cellophane” wraps up the notion of Amos as the only representative of compassion on a stage full of contemptible caricatures. And Michael Acardo channels Raymond Chandler as the very funny narrator.
A deserved nod goes also to Conductor Chris Sargent, whose orchestra is nothing short of brilliant in keeping the jazz coming all night long. Kevin Depinet‘s interesting set design, Sally Ratke‘s numerous costumes, Claire Moores‘ wig and hair work and Lee Fisness‘ extraordinary lighting all add to this show’s crisp brilliance.
While national tours of the Broadway show have made numerous visits to its namesake city, this is the first major regional production of Chicago here.
So here’s a hearty recommendation to see the show where “she’s gonna shimmy ’til her garters break, and all that jazz.” But remember, too: “Six and three is nine, nine and nine is 18,” and that’s the day in June you’ve got to see what I’ve seen.
Drury Lane Theatre presents “Chicago” through June 18 at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brett Beiner Photography.