With snow blanketing much of the country, it might seem a strange time to suggest a visit to Illinois. However, I recommend a virtual vacation to Chicago via Theatre Downtown; the new production of the venerable vaudeville musical features enough sizzling singer-dancer action in skimpy skivvies to keep you steamy until spring.
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s satire of crime and media in the Roaring 20s has been around the block more than a few times since its 1975 Broadway debut: there’s the still-running 1996 New York revival (the longest-running revival in Broadway history), the Oscar-winning 2002 film version of the show and the exhausted touring company that limped through town in June 2010.
Director Steven MacKinnon’s staging borrows from those bigger-budget predecessors, and he injects enough color and energy to fully exploit every inch of Theatre Downtown’s limited space. Musical director Spencer Crosswell’s eight-member pit orchestra (featuring Don Hopkins playing piano) is bigger than some current Broadway bands. And between Matt Rudman’s textured boho-burlesque set, Felicia Hall’s richly atmospheric lighting and Grayson Tate’s vintage va-va-voom costumes, this production looks far more expensive than one you’d expect to see on the stage of a nonprofit theater company.
Production values aside, a show lives and dies by its performers, and Chicago’s leading trio is right on target. As Velma Kelly, Danielle Lang is a sharp stepper with a vibrant voice, and Joel Warren has Billy Flynn’s smarmy shyster smile (framed by a pencil-thin ’stache) down to a science. Michelle Elise, who captures Roxie Hart’s whipsaws from wanton waif to hard-boiled harpy with charm and conviction, is the show’s best discovery. Elise’s bio says she’s primarily an electronic dance-music recording artist, but on behalf of Orlando theatergoers, I hope she chooses to spend more time on our stages.
Standouts among the secondary characters are numerous and include Stephen Pugh’s amusingly overwrought Fred Casely, Joshua Eads-Brown’s operatic Mary Sunshine and Eddy Coppens’ perfectly pathetic Amos Hart.
The ensemble executes choreographer Denise Ahlert’s Fosse-flavored steps with strength and sensuality, even if the stubby stage occasionally forces them to bump elbows.
Unfortunately, Mama Morton (Priscilla Bagley) lacks the sass to support her well-trained singing voice, and the show suffers structurally from a slender book and an overly long first act. But in almost every way, MacKinnon and company do an ideal job of reminding us what’s still right about Chicago.
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