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Chicago's Razzle-dazzle Fizzles

By Adam E. Pachter

In all fairness, one must admit that Chicago director Beth Heller did not have the best material with which to work. This 18-song musical, although created by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the same duo which brought Cabaret to the American stage, boasts none of that show's sharp characterization, memorable lyrics nor attachment to the era in which it is set. While Cabaret was firmly rooted in the fears and expectations of Weimar Germany, this play floats around its 1920's setting; aside from the choice of music, Chicago gives little reason why its action should take place in this city or even in this decade.


Directed b Beth Heller

Musical direction by Brian Hecht

In the Leverett House Old Library

Through November 10

That said, Heller does nothing to aid her own cause. Although Chicago boasts skillful choreography and exuberant performances, this show is saddled by clumsy direction, offensive racial stereotypes and a chorus whose constant vocal presence ensures that we will rarely hear the lead in any song. In Chicago clutter replaces cohesion, and although this cast tries to provide some razzle-dazzle, the poor script and staging result in only fitful success.

Arrested for the murder of an unfaithful lover, flapper Roxie Hart (Christine Kienzle) is tossed into a women's prison run by the lusty lesbian, Mama Morton (Lenore Jones). If she can just convince her dim-witted husband Amos (Tym Tombar) to raise the five-thousand dollars necessary to hire slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Todd Forman), Roxie may escape with her life. But she's got competition for newspaper headlines and public sympathy from equally celebrated murderess Velma Kelly (Vonnie Roemer). Which one will get the not-guilty verdict first?

Such is Chicago's plot. But this play is more accurately a series of vacuous show tunes set back-to-back, with only the sparsest of dialogue separating musical numbers. And while a few of the tunes are catchy ("Razzle-Dazzle" and "Cell Block Tango" are both amusing), most of the dialogue seems flat and humorless. One exchange between Roxie and her lawyer is particularly foolish. When Roxie tells Billy, "You treat me like some dumb common criminal," he replies, "You are some dumb common criminal." Couldn't book writers Ebb and Bob Fosse have done better than this?

Heller cannot be blamed for the script's shortcomings, but her staging decisions accentuate the play's negative qualities. Producing Chicago in the Leverett House Old Library is a serious mistake. Although Heller and choreographer Allison McDonnel cleverly incorporate Leverett's stairwells into the action, the choice of venue leaves almost no room for the 18 actors. Chairs for the audience and the four-piece band swallow the majority of the available stage space; the side aisles should have been opened to provide the dancers with an outlet for movement. As is, the concentration of bodies results in our hearing concerted blasts of sound rather than coherent lyrics.

Although several of the actors bump into each other in the course of Chicago, McDonnel deserves credit for keeping the on-stage mayhem to a minimum. She shouldn't have to work this hard, but Heller insists on the hackneyed technique of inserting the chorus into virtually every song and ending most numbers with the entire company surrounding the lead singer. These techniques should have been used more sparingly.

Unfortunately, the dramatic direction is not strong enough to redeem the failings of the cabaret. The characters turn and deliver their lines straight to the audience, not bothering to open their stance and pretend that they are conversing with each other. As a result the illusion of on-stage reality is never maintained, and the audience cannot forget that Chicago is really only a series of sound bites.

And unfortunately, both Amos and Mama are given degrading roles for Black actors to play. Mama is sick and lecherous, and while Jones does her best with an insulting part, the scenes in which she rubs her crotch and shakes her chest furiously in front of the audience are embarassing to watch. The role of Amos, though not written for a Black in the original production, becomes particularly offensive when presented as a minority character: Tombar is simple, subservient, and constantly humiliated by his white, adulterous wife.

Though the acting in Chicago is as helter-skelter as the rest of the production, it is one of the production's stronger aspects. The cast members clearly relish their roles, and they bring a contagious energy to this play. Standouts include Roemer, who impresses both vocally and dramatically in her solo, "I Know a Girl," and Tombar, who gives a performance reminiscent of Louis Armstrong in High Society. His plea for sympathy, "Mr. Cellophane," is the show's outstanding musical moment.

Brian Hecht's music direction is adequate, but the ensemble had problems with balance--lines and voices often get lost. The transition between numbers is fairly smooth, though, and the four band members, particularly Ken Pasternak on trumpet, bring zest to the otherwise standard score.

Chicago, though textually problematic, might have succeeded in a larger venue and with more inventive staging. But Heller's decision to present this production as a cramped series of chorus numbers undermines the onstage enthusiasm. In "Razzle Dazzle," the song which might serve as a parable of the entire production, the cast sings, "As long as you keep 'em way off balance/How can they tell you've got no talent." In this badly managed production of Chicago, we are kept so off-balance that we cannot tell who has talent and who does not.

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