Last night, Chicago overtook Atlanta. This isn’t some North-South battle you missed when you cut CNN short. Chicago the Musical descended on Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Centre for the first of a long weekend of performances. It brought with it short hemlines, free flowing alcohol in a time of Prohibition and a media sensationalism, feeding off the deviants that plagued society during the roaring 20s.
If you think you know Chicago because you watched Richard Gere and Rene Zellweger strut their stuff on the Silver Screen over a decade ago, think again. When Broadway does Chicago it is a musical and dancing extravaganza that tinsel town can’t hope to emulate. Set design just gets in the way. Dialog is little more than pointless filler. Chicago is first introduced to the audience via the jazz band that anchors the stage. They serve as the unofficial conductor for the story that is yet to unfold. We quickly meet our dark heroine Roxie Hart (Tracy Shayne) as she is setting the plot in motion. Her illicit lover has had his fill of Roxie and is moving on to more attractive pastures. Unable to cope with this revelation, Roxie plugs ol’ Fred Casley full of slugs from the barrel of her 45. Roxie’s husband Amos (Ron Orbach) quickly enters the scene and tries to fall on the sword to save his wife from the horrors of prison life, but the revelation of her affair puts the tag squarely on her head.
Roxie gets carted off to the big house where she meets Velma Kelly, another gun totting lass who loves to shoot first and ask questions later. Velma is busily preparing for her 15 minutes of fame as the press drools over the novelty of a female killer. The only problem is Roxie is the latest flavor of the moment for the flashbulbs. Roxie is introduced to defense attorney Billy Flynn (Brian O’Brien) who promises to get anyone off for the low, low price of $5,000. Roxie somehow convinces her cheated husband to pony up the king’s ransom, and Billy goes to work selling Roxie Hart to the public. Velma feebly tries to elbow the spotlight away from Roxie, but the blond vixen refuses to ease her vise grip on the press coverage. All the while the prospect of dangling by the hangman’s noose hangs in the background for both ladies.
Since its revival in 1996, Chicago has become the longest running Broadway revival as well as the fourth longest running show on Broadway for good reason. Several key strengths were ever present in last night’s performance. First are the pedigree of our lead actresses. Terra MacLeod just embodies Velma. She first played the part in 2003 in Montreal and Paris in 2004. She’s taken part in the Chicago tour, hit the West End and introduced the world to Chicago through numerous International performances. Similarly, Tracy Shayne is well versed as Roxie, having played the part as far back as 2003. After a decade of practice, I’d say these ladies have the subtle styling of these murderous ladies down to a science. The musical’s host of side characters brought a bounty of life to the proceedings. Brian O’Brien adds that Roger Sterling look and charm to Billy Flynn. Kecia Lewis-Evans was an absolute hoot as Mama, stealing the scene whenever she set foot on the stage.
Also a key in the making of Chicago is its book. Dissecting this morbid fascination with the murderous lasses that stole headlines in the time of Al Capone is intriguing. The thought that offing your husband could propel you into the spotlight for fame and fortune is equally compelling and grotesque. Our paparazzi, train wreck-driven culture seems to have a soft spot in our hearts for the theater of criminality. Chicago packages this up and sets it to lively music and dance in a way that Broadway hasn’t seen before.
Chicago’s crowning achievement though has to be its songbook and choreography. Since the story is largely told through music, memorable numbers litter the production. From the opening notes of “All That Jazz” to Billy wowing the jury with “Razzle Dazzle,” it is a very memorable score that truly defines Chicago. Just as important is the elaborate dance numbers. They draw the focus to the center of the stage and you really forget there isn’t anything around the cast to set the scene.
Chicago is a very enjoyable evening out for Atlanta’s theater crowd. Leave your preconceptions, of what Hollywood has told you that Chicago is, at the door. This clever tale of murder, fame and blinding spectacle is fun and compelling. Not to mention the Cobb Energy Centre is a great venue to see a show. Conveniently located off I-75 and 285, this new addition to Atlanta’s performance market boasts seats with plenty of leg room, ample parking and a highly enjoyable overall atmosphere. Catch Chicago during its short stay in Atlanta. It may be a while till the murderous temptresses are in our fair city again.