All That Jazz

Phoenix Theatre's excellent production of Chicago is both a pleasant entertainment and a shrewd example of this 83-year-old company's talent for mounting crowd-pleasing retreads. Director/choreographer Michael Barnard has borrowed from Chicago's original 1975 staging and from the recent film version, and jazzed it up with some swell tricks of his own. The result is glittery and polished and comfortably familiar, a showcase of local talent timed to cash in on a blockbuster movie and staged to please the most discriminating musical theater fan.

John Kander and Fred Ebb's best-known musical -- with a book by Ebb and Bob Fosse -- follows Velma Kelly (Tracey Lore) and Roxie Hart (Natalie Charlé Ellis), a pair of murderous showgirls who belt, sob and shimmy their way into and out of the pokey with the help of a double-dealing defense attorney and a shady prison matron. With this production, Barnard, co-choreographer Robert Kolby Harper and a notable cast steamroll the audience with rousing renditions of familiar tunes. "He Had It Coming," one of Chicago's principal high points, combines complex chorus work with a spinning scenery revolve; "All I Care About" is an all-out Vegas showstopper featuring jazz star Dennis Rowland and danced by beaded gals wielding feathered fans; and "We Both Reached for the Gun" surrounds Rowland with shimmering newshounds whom costumer Gail Wolfenden-Steib has garbed in vests and bow ties and little else. A less flashy routine is among the evening's best: In "Tap Dance," Roxie pleads for cash from her husband Amos while their alter egos clack out an interpretive dance that Ellis herself joins at the wind-up.

Despite an unsightly wig (which she appears to be wearing backward, and which has her looking more like a slatternly Orphan Annie than a musically inclined jailbird), Ellis' performance as Roxie may be the best of her young career. Terey Summers' wicked bump-and-grind to "When You're Good to Mama" drove the sold-out first-night audience into foot-stomping hysterics. Rowland is an extraordinary performer, even in repose; his Billy Flynn is the calm in the eye of this musical storm. And as the trades used to say, Tracy Lore is Velma Kelly -- gritty and glamorous and hard to look away from. Finally, who knew Lyman Goodrich (typecast here, after his recent drag turn as a matronly model in Pageant, in the Mary Sunshine role) had such great pipes? His arias are a goofy revelation.

Gregory Jaye's gorgeous black-and-faux-chrome Deco set is a dazzling tribute to this young designer's talents. A massive bandstand, awash in Michael Eddy's color-saturated lighting, overlooks two curved stairways, three scenery revolves, and a pair of mammoth Erté-inspired lanterns, all of it in constant motion while Ron Colvard's hot 11-piece band keeps perfect time.

A lack of focus spoils some of the better sequences, which sink under the weight of too much clever business. In "Razzle Dazzle," Rowland is eclipsed by a stage full of scene-stealing side-show performers, and Roxie's big courtroom scene is completely lost to Harper's shenanigans (which had the audience howling) as each of several different jury members. But the audience, who'd come to see something familiar and had worn itself out stomping and cheering, didn't seem to mind.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela