Ivoryton’s “Chicago” Almost Meets Their High Standards

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“We Both Reached for the Gun” with Lyn Philistine and Christopher Sutton. Photo by Anne Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

 Last summer, Ivoryton Playhouse gave us terrific productions of two musicals – South Pacific and Memphis, plus a very good production of Little Shop of Horrors. So they have set the bar very high for this summer’s series of three musicals.

The first of them, Chicago, which runs through July 24 is a very good production that made me wish it were better. You will enjoy it; the night I saw it, the audience certainly did. Yet for me, it had enough minor flaws – and a few not so minor – that I couldn’t share totally the enthusiasm of the audience.

By now, it is hard to believe that there is anyone who hasn’t either seen a production of Chicago or seen the movie or at least recognizes some of the songs. The movie was hit, and the show is still running on Broadway – it is the longest running American musical in history – and there have been numerous touring productions.

This Kander & Ebb show which is actually based on a very old play that became the 1930s film Roxie Hart  is about the celebrity culture of the 1920s.  Roxie Hart kills her lover and becomes a celebrity; it is assumed that she will be acquitted and become a “star” on the vaudeville circuit. In the same position is Velma Kelly, who killed both her husband and her sister. Add in a celebrity lawyer, a sob-sister columnist and a very helpful matron at the jail and you have the makings of a terrific plot.

Kander & Ebb (and Bob Fosse the original director/choreographer) set it as a series of vaudeville routines introduced by various characters. Thus, Velma sings “An Act of Desperation”.

But Chicago presents challenges to any production; the Fosse choreography which is very stylized must be hinted at but cannot be copied; and it has stay true to the 1920s period. The actors playing Roxie, Velma and Billy Flynn, the lawyer need to have style and charisma.

Let me start by saying many things are good in this production. The nine piece orchestra is led by music director Paul Feyer. At the back of the stage behind what seems like prison bars, it is excellent and large enough to do justice to the music. The sound designer Tate R. Burmeister has also done an excellent job. You never are blasted out of your seats by the volume; you can hear the lyrics. Occasionally some of the singers were almost too quiet, but I was sitting in the back of the balcony.

Set designer Martin Scott Marchitto also handled the awkward Ivoryton stage cleverly. Most of the costumes by Elizabeth Cipollina were good, though a few seemed more 1930s than 1920s.

Todd L. Underwood both directed and choreographed. Again, he did a good job. I did find some of the choreography repetitious and not always in the 1920s mood.

The cast, which features seven performers with Equity cards, overall are good. Ian Greer Shain, who does not yet have his card, was a terrific as Amos, Roxie’s easily manipulated husband. He managed to make the character both sympathetic and pathetic and really put over the song, “Mr. Cellophane.” Z. Spiegel who plays Mary Sunshine, the columnist is also very, very good. Spiegel has done the role before.

Lyn Phillastine as Roxie both sings and dances well. Her gestures and facial expressions let us see Roxie’s cycles of confidence and fear, strength and weakness. Stacy Harris as Velma also delivers a fully developed characterization. Yet, with of each of them, there was something – hard to identify – missing. Just a little touch that would have made these performances truly outstanding.

Christopher Sutton plays the smooth talking, star lawyer who knows how to manipulate not only the press, but the jury and everyone else. While he may proclaim that ”All I Care About (Is You)”, he is clearly in it for the money and his own celebrity status. He views the law cynically, which he makes clear in the production number, “Razzle Dazzle.” Sutton again his good, but there is more lacking in his performance; he did not seem to project the magnetic qualities of Billy, and in the “Razzle Dazzle” number his costume makes him look like a circus ringmaster.

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Sheniqua Denise Trotman. Photo by Anne Hudson.

Unfortunately the weakest link in the show is Sheniqua Denise Trotman as Mama Morton, the prison Matron. I loved Trotman as Effie in Ivoryton’s Dream Girls. Here her voice is still terrific but she says many of her lines with minimal characterization or emotion. She doesn’t get across the innuendo in the role.

All in all, Ivoryton’s Chicago is a production that most of you will enjoy very much. While this show has a message – about cynicism and celebrity culture – it is presented in such an enjoyable way that you will be delighted.

Chicago is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, through Sunday, July 24. For tickets visit ivortyonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

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Stacey Harris as Velma Kelly. Photo by Anne Hudson.

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