Completely transformed, The Ritz theatre feels sleazy and sexy with its manic salon-style hang of mirrors, pictures, and gaudy chandeliers -- the perfect ambiance for the morally repugnant and deliciously sinful Chicago. Unlike some past productions at the Ritz that utilized a height-maximizing set (such as Assassins), scenic designer Eli Sherlock has made Chicago sink into the stage (presumably from the weight of its sins). The band, led expertly by Denise Prosek, plays in three different pits that take pride of place on the stage, while a center aisle juts all the way out into the audience; some lucky audience members even get to sit at cabaret tables near and cocktail ledges built into the stage. Lighting designer Mary Shabatura follows suit, with an impressively versatile lighting scheme that implicates the audience. We are first given the ol’ “Razzle Dazzle” and then the lights beckon us to become part of it. Coupled with many entrances and exits coming through the audience, the immersive environment made me feel extra complicit in the web of selfishness and deceit on view. I loved it.
Chicago’s plot is hardly worth rehashing -- confirming that women are just as devious and murderous as men, Velma Kelly (Michelle de Joya) and Roxie Hart (Britta Ollmann) employ the smooth-talking, truth-adverse Billy Flynn (Robert O. Berdahl) to help them avoid the noose in 1920s Chicago. Michelle de Joya, as always, is a master of movement, slinkling around the stage and seducing audience members (her version of "I Can't Do It Alone" is particularly acrobatic, which is nice to see in a song that is often a throw-away number). Britta Ollmann’s channels a voluptuous Marilyn Monroe for her characterization of Roxie -- sexy, low class, and a bit past her prime, Roxie’s hungry for attention and fame remains undiminished. Ollmann keeps this hunger at the forefront of her characterization, emphasizing Roxie’s mediocre talent and cunning manipulativeness. Robert O. Berdahl seems to be having a jolly good time, but there is an edge to his eyes and voice that continually remind you he is in it for the Benjamins.
Peter Rothstein and his team push against some classic pieces of the show. Costume designer Alice Fredrickson has a fresh take on some of the traditional pieces -- there is nary a black negligee to be found, but in their place our merry murderous are clad in adorable yet sexy black and white striped boyfriend tunics. (This is even more clever because every one of them is there for murdering a male lover.) The small cast -- only 13 in all -- executes Kelli Foster Warder’s choreography well, although to me the moves themselves felt a little bit stiffer than the original, signature Fosse choreography. This is not to say the ensemble, or their numbers, are lacking -- far from it! This team works well together, and their chemistry on stage is electric (particularly in “Cell Block Tango” and "Me and My Baby"). I also enjoyed how some of the musical lines have been redistributed in this production to give the ensemble greater presence and visibility -- it really works well.
Of course, like so many great musicals, the character actor parts are often more coveted than the leads -- Matron “Mama” Morton (Regina Marie Williams), Amos Hart (Reed Sigmund) and Mary Sunshine (Fernando Collado), bring the action to live as the greedy jail master, cuckolded-yet-doting husband, and easily persuaded reporter, respectively. Regina Marie Williams, from her first entrance removing her satiny teal gloves with her teeth, has the audience eating out of her hand. Her musical numbers are dynamite, and I loved how the wider blank and white stripes on her ubiquitous tunic sweater was a visual reminder of her relationship to the criminals she “corrects.” Reed Sigmund plays Amos extra Magoo-ish, constantly tripping over the same spot and unable to rally the band for his exit music (possibly the saddest moment in the show). Fernando Collado can really sing this number, and his costuming is spot on for the role. Not always considered large parts but unbelievably well-executed in this production are Katalin Hunyak, played by Elly Stahlke, and Fred Casely (Roxie’s ill-fated lover) played by Dylan Rugh. Rugh is so slimy, funny, and seemingly plastic. While Stahlke is dancing, it’s hard to watch anyone else. Particularly memorable is her “Hungarian Rope Trick," which I won’t spoil, but it’s staging, visual design, and her movement in this scene is worth the price of admission.
Go and be seduced by this wonderful production -- Chicago plays at the Ritz Theater until November 3rd.