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REVIEW: Cell Block Tangos Still Kicking in Chicago (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

The cast of the Broadway tour of Chicago. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

Having worked as an attorney in the criminal justice system for fifteen years, I am always eager to see shows with a legal theme.  Chicago is a fast-moving, lively legal-themed musical that gives a satiric portrayal of a decadent corrupt legal system benefiting the rich, famous, and infamous in the 1920s.  I would like to say such corruption is a thing of the past in America, but given recent pardon headlines you probably would not believe me.

Dylis Crowman as Roxie Hart in Chicago. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Maurine Dallas Watkins, a crime reporter, wrote the play Chicago based on two 1920s sensational trials of women who blamed booze and jazz as the cause for their acts of intentional murder.  Both obviously guilty women were acquitted by all-male juries.  Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse wrote the show’s book, and Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics with music by John Kander.  Bob Fosse choreographed the show when it opened on Broadway.

The original production ran for two years and won only one Tony Award.  The show’s 1996 revival was much far more successful winning six Tony Award and continues running to this day on Broadway – one of a handful of shows in the two-decade-run club. Although Fosse had passed on by 1996, Anne Reinking choreographed the revival in a similar style.  The current tour is directed by David Hyslop and features choreographer David Bushman’s recreation of Ann Reinking’s choreography; the terrific cast yields an entertaining evening of music, dance, and murder.

The musical focuses on Roxie Hart (Dylis Croman), a married woman who murders the lover who spurned her.  Velma Kelly (Terrac C. MacLeod) is also a married woman who murdered her sister and husband who were cheating on her.  Roxie and Velma are both guests on Murderous Row at the Chicago’s detention center for women. While they are awaiting trial and they each retain the wildly successful and expensive defense attorney Billy Flynn.  Hart and Kelly see their arrests and resulting publicity as career opportunities for their show business careers.  The story of Hart’s murder, arrest, and trial serves as background for more than a dozen enjoyable dance and song numbers.

Terra C. MacLeod as Velma Kelly in Chicago. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Both Croman and MacLeod have terrific singing voices and dance moves.  Croman demonstrates her deft comic touch in Roxy’s opening tune “Funny Honey”, in praise of her hubby for taking the blame for her murder…until she realizes he is spilling the beans.  MacLeod’s gritty performance of the more seasoned Velma is riveting, especially with her energetic dance moves in “Cell Block Tango.” Jeff McCarthy has great fun with his polish performance of Billy Flynn, a showy entertainer who appears equally adept at selling an acquittal to a jury as he would be at selling a used car.  Paul Vogt as Amos Hart, Roxy’s sometimes dim husband, steals every scene he is in with his insights regarding his insignificance in life.  D. Ratell’s camps it up with his drag performance of Mary Sunshine, while Jennifer Fouche belts out a memorable version of “When You’re Good to Mama” as Matron “Mama” Morton.

Conductor Robert Billig and his orchestra literally takes center stage and symbolically plays the role of the jury.  Cast members sit in chairs lines up on both sides of the orchestra as the performances while they take their turns telling the story.

What the bare bones production lacks with respect to scenery and costumes, is more than made up with the vibrant cast and its fast moving dancing and singing.  Chicago offers a pleasurable evening of razzle-dazzle to complement its sardonic look at justice.

Bev Wolfe