Chicago, one of the American theater’s cornerstone productions, explodes onto the Dock Street stage in a production oozing with vaudevillian charm. It’s a fitting choice for Charleston Stage, deftly handled by director Marybeth Clark (who also helmed last year’s Hairspray). This isn’t the moody, flashy, cinematic juggernaut that took six Academy Awards in 2002. It’s the flashy, campy, showy comedy romp whose 1997 revival took six Tony Awards and is the longest running revival in Broadway history. There’s real character and charm here, and it razzle dazzles away the rough spots, making everything shine.
And shine it does. Julian Wiles, serving as set and lighting designer, outdoes himself here, providing some of the best visuals seen at the Dock yet. Newspapers shout headlines from the background. Archways and curtains sparkle and light up as dancers move gracefully (mostly, more on that later) across the stage. It all illustrates the legal system as a circus of lights and lies. The headlines never leave us, hovering above the stage as cellblocks give way to courtrooms and the press comes and goes wherever it wants. The original production of this show in 1975 received mixed reviews because of its subversive criticism of the American celebrity culture, but in a world where alleged criminals are better known for their nicknames than their crimes, it’s hard not to applaud the show’s frankness.
It’s also hard not to applaud the cast. These guys are working hard. A strong ensemble gives this show zest, and the work of principles Vanessa Moyen and Derek T. Pickens, members of the resident acting company of Charleston Stage, deserves recognition. As Billy Flynn, Pickens is devilish fun. You can see him relishing in the style and suave of Flynn, even if he never quite delivers any moments of real bite. As Roxie Hart, Moyen is pitch perfect and a firecracker in motion, handling Roxie’s dance moves with a grace and ease that costar Jillian Kuhl (as Velma Kelly) unfortunately lacks. Kuhl moves like she’s uncomfortable in her body, never quite lending any true sexiness to Velma, and never quite making me believe that this girl is a vaudeville-dancing star.
Moyen and Pickens are exquisite together during “We Both Reached for the Gun,” one of the show’s best numbers and definitely the first act highlight. Beth Curley as Mary Sunshine is downright hilarious, as she was in last season’s 39 Steps. Crystin Gilmore plays Matron Mama Morton, the keeper of the keys at Cook County jail, with soulful attitude. She and Kuhl join for the number “Class,” and their voices are sublime together.
The rest of the ensemble (featuring Stage resident actors and local Charleston talent) bring the dance numbers to life around the principals, and make up for any misgivings. Josh Harris absolutely steals Act II with his rendition of “Mister Cellophane.” His Amos starts off as a clown, but by the end of his number he will have you in tears.
You may miss his eyes though. The Dock Street Theatre is all about tradition, and one of those is face shadowing that plague actors when they walk too far downstage. While it never ruins any particular scene, it is a bother. Actors have expressive faces. We want to see them.
All in all this is a damn fine production, a strong start for the new Charleston Stage season. It’s Chicago. It’s one of the best musicals in the history of Broadway. And it’s one of the best productions that Charleston Stage has presented in recent memory.