Musical escape

Chicago offers perfectly sweltering drama for a hot summer night

Velma (left) and Roxie, killer entertainers.

Velma (left) and Roxie, killer entertainers.

Photo courtesy of Chico Theater Company

Chicago shows through July 2, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.
Chico Theater Company
166 Eaton Road, Ste. F

A show centered around murder, infidelity and sexual entanglements? Already sounds like some scintillating summer-evening entertainment. Add a hot 1920s jazz-inspired soundtrack, scanty costumes and slinky choreography, witty stage banter and impassioned singing, and you have yourself an entertaining evening. The comfortable, air-cooled environment at Chico Theater Company doesn’t hurt either in this heat and was an added bonus when I went to see the current production of that iconic, and incredibly long-running Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse musical, Chicago.

For the Chico production, multitalented director and choreographer Beau Cash—who also did the set and lighting design as well as collaborated on costumes with Kathleen Robinson—assembled a large, dynamic cast of triple-threat singing/dancing/acting performers. They convey the story of two 1920s-era murderesses/entertainers, former vaudeville star Velma Kelly (Jennifer Davis) and nightclub chorus girl Roxie Hart (Sydney Taylor), who use their notoriety as killers to advance their careers onstage. Far-fetched as it sounds, the story—originally written by Maurine Dallas Watkins in 1926—is based on the real-life tale of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, who were suspected and later acquitted of murder in 1924.

Complicated and sensational as the backstory sounds, the plot is a framework for a nearly nonstop revue of songs belted out by the lead characters and accompanied by choreographed production numbers by the troupe’s dancers and chorus singers. The music by John Kander reflects the style of its Roaring ’20s setting while not straying too far from the tropes of musical theater show tunes. The talent, spirit and commitment of the actors make musical theater come alive, and in this case the casting presents an array of performers who obviously enjoy inhabiting their characters.

Davis’ Velma fairly bursts with feminine power and wiles, and her full-throated delivery of musical numbers while performing moves that take dance into the realm of outright gymnastics—she actually performs a handstand on a chair while singing “I Can’t Do It Alone”—elicited gasps of concern and whooping gales of applause from the audience.

By contrast, Taylor’s Roxie is every bit as shrewd and ambitious as her counterpart, but with a shred of softness still occasionally peeping out from the tatters of her ravaged marriage to the sympathetic, soft-hearted and simple-minded Amos (Christopher Sullivan). Amos initially attempts to shield Roxie from the charge of murdering her lover, Fred Casely (Nicholas Fawcett), a salesman who gave them a discount on their furniture, but his efforts fall flat.

Tying the murder cases together is Billy Flynn (Allen Lunde), a lawyer who specializes in making his clients into tabloid celebrities by selling sensationalized versions of their stories to the highest bidder. Included among his clientele is a whole chorus of “Merry Murderesses,” each of whom is given a moment to shine and tell her story in the major production number “Cell Block Tango.”

All in all, Chico Theater Company’s rendition of Chicago offers a sumptuous evening of musical theater in a comfortable setting that includes, during intermission, a full bar and concession booth vending an array of treats.