Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chicago takes charge of Sacramento

If anarchy needed a bible, a good choice would be the award-winning musical “Chicago,” its national tour now brought to Sacramento by California Musical Theatre. According to its press release, the show offers us “Murder. Greed. Corruption. Violence. Exploitation. Adultery.” Who could ask for anything more?

The storyline is based loosely on a pair of 1924 murders, reported in the Chicago Tribune by Maurine Dallas Watkins. The first was about a married cabaret singer, Belva Gaertner, accused of killing her husband. “No sweetheart in the world,” Gaertner declared, "is worth killing.” The second featured a young Beaulah Annan, who killed her boyfriend, “then called her husband to tell him.” Thanks to a sharp lawyer, she got away with the crime.

The stories inspired the 1942 film “Roxie Hart” and ultimately led to the current musical, with Roxie Hart (Bianca Marroquin) as the lead character. A housewife and nightclub dancer, she shoots Fred Casely (Brent Heuser), the lover who threatens to walk out on her. In a Cook County jail she meets and later befriends Velma Kelly (Brenda Braxton), one among several murderesses who deliver “Cell Block Tango.”

Presiding over the block is the corrupt matron, “Mama” Morton, played by big-voiced Carol Woods. Adding color to the group and played in drag is Mary Sunshine (D. Micciche), who justifies herself in “A Little Bit of Good.” Somehow Micciche shows us an operatic voice, complete with vibrato.

Billed as the star of the production is television’s popular John O’Hurley, playing the sharp and cynical lawyer Billy Flynn. Described by People magazine as one of the “Sexiest Men Alive,” he’s best known for roles as diverse as J. Peterson on TV’s “Seinfeld” and King Arthur in “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” He’s not only authoritative as Flynn, but he delivers in numbers like “We both Reached for the Gun” and “Razzle Dazzle.”

But labeling him as the star does him no favor. Despite a very capable performance, he just doesn’t make it as the “star” of the show. At the opposite pole is Tom Riis Farrell as Amos Hart, Roxie’s lackluster husband with bottomless tolerance for all her vagaries. From jail she claims to be pregnant as a way to escape the criminal justice system, and Amos waxes ecstatic, declaring that he’s the father—even though they haven’t had marital relations for years.

But when she reveals that there really is no baby, the reality of his position, the knowledge that she merely uses him, finally becomes inescapable. When at last he leaves her, not in bitterness but in practical necessity, he earns both pity and respect from the audience in one of the shows most powerful and moving moments. In song he identifies himself as “Mister Cellophane,” the man invisible to all. And he departs with awesome dignity and philosophical poise.

The show finally unwinds with an unexpected twist.

With book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander, plus lyrics by Ebb, the Broadway production opened in 1975. It’s revival in 1996 proved to be one of the longest revivals in Broadway history. Since the latter date the show has had successful productions in 24 countries and 11 languages, but especially on London’s “West End” stage.

The one big drawback for the production is John Lee Beatty’s set, a grandstand tilted like a huge picture frame and occupied by an orchestra of thirteen musicians, led by Andrew Bryan. The set so dominates the action that the various locales, especially the jail, are never really seen. Thus the various scenes are played out on something like an Elizabethan stage, where the locale is defined through announcement by one of the characters.

As a result it’s easy to lose track of where an action is taking place, thus inviting some confusion among the audience. Otherwise the rest of the production is compelling.

“Chicago” continues through March 21 at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L Street, Sacramento. Tickets, $18-$65, are available at the Convention Center Box Office, (916) 808-5181. Advance tickets can be had at the Wells Fargo Pavilion Box Office, 1419 H Street, (916) 557-1999, or Call the box office for remaining dates and times or check

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