Theater review: ‘Chicago’ at Theatre Downtown

By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater

When it comes to style over substance, Chicago beats most musicals hands down. Of course, that’s the point of Chicago, in a high-energy revival at Theatre Downtown – that corruption and murder are fine with us Americans as long as they’re handled with flair.

Not a pretty thought, perhaps, but that, too, is the point of Chicago. You can pass off all sorts of nasty goings-on in musical theater (just look at Sweeney Todd) if you pass them off with panache.

And there’s plenty of panache in director Steve MacKinnon’s Chicago, an ambitious undertaking for Theatre Downtown and one that turns out to be almost exactly what it should. There’s so much style on Chicago’s little stage, in fact, that you’ll laugh with glee – not just at the cynical wit of this much-lauded musical but at the fact that Theatre Downtown has it in the bag.

Start with all the talent that MacKinnon and his cohorts have rounded up – not just a devilish Joel Warren to play Billy Flynn, a spiky Danielle Lang as Velma Kelly and a kittenish Michelle Elise as Roxie Hart, and not just a group of strong supporting actors that includes the terrific Joshua Eads-Brown as a larger-than-life Mary Sunshine. There are also the half-dozen or so merry murderesses, each of them unique, and as many buff young male dancers to fill out the able cast.

This Chicago is heavy on atmosphere, set as it is on and around a tiny, semicircular, old-fashioned stage, complete with footlights (designed by Matt Rudman), with Felicia Hall’s moody lighting and Grayson Tate’s sleazy Cabaret-style costumes. (Who knew there were so many bustiers in town?) Musical director Spencer Crosswell’s onstage band is suitably jazzy (Joe Young’s trumpet, Abe Alamalhodaei’s banjo and Don Hopkinson’s piano are especially notable), and the whole thing looks and sounds just as seedy and sexy as it should.

Denise Ahlert has choreographed the show in the style of Bob Fosse, and in most cases the company performs this difficult stuff with what looks like ease: The elegant, long-legged Lang, in particular, is a joy to watch. Neither Lang nor Elise is a powerhouse singer, but they have so much attitude that it doesn’t matter: Lang plays Velma as a disappointed woman who still keeps pushing to wind up on top, and Elise’s soft-looking little Roxie – Roxie as Marilyn, or as Playmate of the Month – turns out to be harder than nails.

The two are more than matched, just as they should be, by Warren’s cocksure Billy Flynn, a man with a wide, empty smile – a smile just as crooked as Billy himself.

Priscilla Bagley displays a great big, handsome voice as Mama Morton, although her performance isn’t especially nuanced; Eddy Coppens makes a winning Amos, and Stephen Pugh is very funny in the small role of Fred Casely, Roxie’s prey. The Merry Murderesses (Lang, Jillian Gizzi, Elizabeth Sambol, Leontyne Carter, Demi Ahlert and Katelin Zelon) find plenty of fun in their “Cell Block Tango” (“he had it comin’”). And Eads-Brown (the wonderful Cowardly Lion in Theatre Downtown’s The Wiz) is a stitch as the showy, larger-than-life Mary Sunshine (and he seems to have fooled all the people in the opening-night audience who apparently didn’t see that someone named Joshua is playing the part).

Not all of the ensemble members are as authoritative as they might be in their speaking roles, and a couple of the accents don’t sound like any Chicagoan I’ve ever heard. The show also peters out a little before it should, and the last number winds up feeling tacked on.

But there’s so much energy onstage up to that point that no one will mind: MacKinnon has found the tension that exists between control and relaxation, and it’s that sense of edgy ease that runs through this production and makes it work so well. Just listen to the almost casual way Warren’s Billy and the ensemble deliver “Razzle Dazzle,” and you get the sense that such smoothness could rear up and turn on you at any moment. That’s Chicago, and that’s style.

‘Chicago’

  • What: Theatre Downtown production of John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse musical, directed by Steve MacKinnon.
  • Where: Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave., Orlando.
  • When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 13 (no performance Jan. 16).
  • Running time: Two hours 20 minutes.
  • Cost: $22 general, $18 seniors and students.
  • Call: 407-841-0083.
  • Online: theatredowntown.net.

Photos: Top, Michelle Elise, Joel Warren and Danielle Lang. Next, Marcellis Cutler, Jose E. Garza, Danielle Giancola Lang, Santio Cupon and Josh Roth. Middle, Greg Bawdon, Michelle Elise, Jose E. Garza, Josh Roth and Daniel Longacre. Next, Joel Warren. Bottom, Joshua Eads-Brown. Photos courtesy of CKG Photography and Theatre Downtown.

Copyright 2011 by Elizabeth Maupin

One response to “Theater review: ‘Chicago’ at Theatre Downtown

  1. Awesome show!