Murder, blackmail and music in Chicago

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Robert Friedman

When Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville opened on Broadway in 1975, many in the audience were said to be shocked — shocked! — by the show’s subversive view of such seeming American verities as a fair and impartial justice system and the secular sainthood of celebrities.

But that was then, 36 years ago. Now, yesterday’s biting cynicism has become today’s relished realism.

The play is still a stinging satire. But it is doubtful, given the intervening real-life trials and tribulations of O.J., Robert Blake, Casey Anthony and assorted honest-as-the-nights-are-short politicians, that much ado will now be made about the message.

The rechristened Chicago: The Musical, finally became a huge Broadway stage hit in 1996, not to mention an Oscar-winning film in 2003. The show is still going strong along the Great White Way.

Audiences here also have a chance to see a version of the play with a resident cast at Toby’s Dinner Theater in Columbia. The show runs through Nov. 6.

Corruption in ‘20s Chicago

The story — which deals with murder, corruption, blackmail, sex, adultery, cheating and exploitation, among other wicked human ways in 1920’s shoot-‘em-up Chicago — is told, as one would expect in a musical, mostly through song and dance.

The overall production and performances are first-rate and enjoyable, despite the confined space of the dinner theater. Still, it takes some smart maneuvering by directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, and choreographer Ilona Kessell, to allow the chorus guys and girls to take the modified, but still hard-swinging steps originally conceived by the great Bob Fosse.

By the way, while Chicago, the movie, won six Academy Awards, the way it was put together as a film seems less daring then its staged construction.

The movie narration was more traditional than it is in the play, giving more gradual and conventional motivations for most of its characters. But for my money, the stage version — with its black-out scenes and swiftly drawn reasons for the action — carries more of a wallop.

The characters are hit, and hit you, over the head much quicker on stage. Just like the tabloid world being satirized.

Stand-out stars

The local cast, meanwhile, is more than worthy. While Fosse’s choreography undoubtedly has had to be harnessed, the vivid songs by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) are properly belted out. 

Carole Graham Lehan, who plays Roxie Hart, the wannabe vaudeville star, is my kind of leading murderess. Poor Roxie, who knocks off her lover for his too-quick departure from her loving arms, legs and other parts, wants her whole life played out in headlines. But she only manages her 15-minute quota of fame.

Lehan comes across as a sweet tough cookie who puts all that jazz into numbers such as “Me and My Baby,” “We Both Reached for the Gun” and especially ”Roxie.” 

Jeffrey Shankle rankles wonderfully as Billy Flynn, your usual media-manipulating, double-dealing, jury-duping, evidence-contorting shyster attorney. In “All I Care About is Love” Flynn-Shankle sings and dances and you know he is sweetest on himself.

Debra Buonaccorsi displays the proper pizzazz as Velma Kelly, a hubby murderer (she also knocked off her sister, in bed with hubby at the time), who longs for a return to the life of a trouper. She scores with Roxie in a couple of duets (“My Own Best Friend,” and “Nowadays”) and with the prison matron, when the two show off their “Class.”

Others who deserve mention are Nancy Tarr Hart, who plays the matron in the women’s prison and will do anything for the girls, as long as the price is right; Munsey, the co-director, who’s also all over the place acting the master of ceremonies and what seems like a half dozen other parts; and Chris Rudy, as Mary Sunshine, the gabby reporter who looks happily at life from all sides and reveals that not much is as it may seem

There’s also David James, playing Amos Hart, Roxie’s nebbishy husband whom no one notices, even when he sings “Mister Cellophane,” a song about no one noticing him. I think James should work harder in that song at not being noticed.

Kudos to the real live band, maybe five or six pieces that swung along with the singers and dancers. The band, hidden behind a curtain, was directed by Christopher Youstra.

While this production of Chicago may not blow you away, it certainly will stir you up enough for an invigorating evening or matinee.

Going to the show

Chicago continues at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, through Nov. 6.

Prior to the show, the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet features steamship round, roast turkey breast, baked ham, chicken and tilapia, a salad bar, and a large variety of side dishes and desserts. In addition to many of the dinner items, the Sunday brunch buffet also includes scrambled eggs, French toast, bacon and sausage.

Tickets, including both meal and show (but not sodas or alcoholic beverages) are $50 for Sunday and Thursday evening shows and Wednesday matinees, $51.50 for Friday evening, $53 for Saturday evening, and $48 for Sunday matinee brunch. Tickets for children ages 12 and under are $34.50 for all performances.

For tickets and more information, call (410) 730-8311 or go to www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

Robert Friedman is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.