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'Chicago' Sets Expectations Too High

By Beryl C.D. Lipton, Crimson Staff Writer

A lot can probably be said about the social relationship between Lady Gaga and Roxie Hart, star murderess of “Chicago.” But last week's production of the 1975 Kander and Ebb musical did not even begin to say it—despite proclaimed aspirations to “inject [Gaga’s] aesthetic”—her “stage histrionics and meta-performance”—back into theater. The effort possessed all the energy and grace of someone constructing a last-minute themed-party costume (one usher took the attitude to an extreme with his sloppy, bubble-wrap toga).

Despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of Gaga-inspired theatricality, the show—centered on a murderess hoping to beat justice through the power of celebrity—still finished its three-night run on Wednesday having, at the very least, entertained its audience. Director Brandon J. Ortiz ’12 left the original Prohibition-era music and lyrics unchanged, and it is their beautiful execution that carried the show, the first student production to be staged in the American Repertory Theater’s Club Oberon.

Once known as the Zero Arrow Theater, Club Oberon announced itself over a year ago as a venue for dynamic theater and the home of “The Donkey Show,” a Studio 54-inspired retelling of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Every weekend the energy of that performance pours out into the street in the form of lame-clad rollerbladers; for this performance, supplementary actors known as “Billy’s Girls” and “Roxie’s Boys” tried to channel some of this pre-show vigor. Ladies in outfits that look like they were shoplifted from Hot Topic’s baby punk section and guys in shiny, red leotards (one in striped boxer briefs) danced and spread through the audience, while “I Got Rhythm” was carried out by Music Director Mark R. Parker ’12 and the band. Apparently instructed to engage-through-flirtation, the Boys and Girls demonstrated that this was a skill yet to be mastered, coming off more awkward than alluring.

The signature “razzle dazzle” of “Chicago” had been subdued by its lack of set and limited number of props (the greatest ooos and ahs were teased out by tricks from an Intro-to-Magic kit), but the leads’ voices,with the superb accompaniment of Parker's band, helped disguise this deficiency. Madison A. Greer '13 made a captivating Roxie Hart; with a giggle as melodic as her singing, it became difficult to detest the irritating character she portrayed, even while her “funny hubby” Amos (Ryan P. Halprin '12, who also choreographed the production) drew the audience’s sympathy with his despairing rendition of “Mr. Cellophane.” And though the sometimes twangy croon of jail warden Mama (Brianne Holland-Stergar ’13) seemed out of place against her leather outfit and punk-inspired braided hair, the high-energy craziness of her character was perhaps the show’s most successful creative liberty. Unfortunately, such innovation was not extended to Roxie’s jailhouse rival Velma Kelly (Megan E. O’ Keefe '11) and their sly lawyer Billy Flynn (Alex Nemiroski). Though equally impressive in talent, Velma and Billy were undermined by the simplicity of their get-ups. Her pink leotard and high, tight ponytail were not imaginative. His smirk seemed to carry the whole weight of the theatrical ringmaster attitude his pink shirt was intended to convey.

Not all of the show’s costumes were underwhelming, though. The other ladies of Crookem County Jail were, for the most part, cleverly attired. The Bazooka gum-themed frock on "Pop" (Nikki Kapu '14), who fired two “warning shots” into the skull of her gum-smacking guy, was particularly amusing, as was the artist's frock dress on the lady of "Lipschitz" (Elise Kuo). The gun-wielding brassiere of the heiress turned murderess was a suitable appropriation from Gaga’s eclectic wardrobe. And the emcee for the evening (Jessica Means ’09) channeled some Gaga-glam in a bright pink, sequined blazer over a sparkly silver bra top, though that pizzazz was sabotaged by her tendency to look alternately bored, worried, or scared.

Occasional Bad Romance-type Thriller claw movements and a wheelchair cameo stood in for Lady-like dance numbers; otherwise the choreography was well executed albeit safe and not particularly “radical,” as was claimed. Still, the aerial silk dance done to illustrate the hanging of the innocent “Uh Oh” (Marin Orlosky Randow ’07) was a welcome touch, as was the cheaply humorous pantomime (delivered by two of Roxie’s Boys) of the Amos’s robotic lovemaking as it compared to the apparently more dynamic Fred Casely (Matthew J. Devino ’13).

So, this was, for better or worse, “a whole new Chicago.” It inexplicably traded the over-the-top glitz of fame for a minimalistic approach to the contemporary, immersive theater experience, but that trade didn’t need to be made. As a lead-up to the number “Class,” Velma expresses frustration after Roxie steals her court appearance dramatics, and Mama replies, “Well, what do you expect?...The world’s gone lowbrow!” For a production that is supposedly inspired by “contemporary high fashion and postmodern performance art,” the answer to the same question would simply be, “More.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: December 13, 2010

An earlier version of the Dec. 13 arts article "'Chicago' Sets Expectations Too High" incorrectly reported that "Chicago" was an HRDC production. In fact, the show was produced independently.

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