Chicago is the second premiere at this year’s Stratford Festival season and an array of superlatives will be required to give you some idea of the production. I said “some idea’ not justice. In an unusual twist, the superlatives will be shared with the opening night audience.
Before we discuss the show, you should know what Director and Choreographer Donna Feore, the local expert on musicals, has in store for you. You know that Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse wrote the book and the lyrics and John Kander composed the music for the 1975 Broadway production. It did not do well. It was revived in 1996 and became a huge hit and has received productions around the world and was made into a film which received the 2002 Oscar for Best picture. That is some pedigree.
Now here is what Donna Feore offers and you have to be sure that it is what you want. I will array a series of words and thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the production. The words “Over the top” occurred to me minutes after the performance started and repeatedly after that. They were not sufficient. Over, over the top, out of this world and such unsatisfactory phrases twirled in my mind but nothing seemed to do it justice.
How about a performance that is frantic, frenetic, frenzied and feverish? The words may be of limited help but the alliteration does have some fine force. Much of the energy created on the stage (yes, the frenetic etc.) is transferred to the audience who simply lap it up. As one friend put it, the message is you either enjoy this show or we will come to you during the night and drink your blood. No one took a chance.
The singing and dancing seemed to be powered by some superhuman generator of energy with performers of incredible stamina. Yes, there were some quieter moments and the second half was a breather for both performers and audience but that was because there had to be some room for the plot.
The musical is based in jazz-age Chicago in the 1920’s and it does have a plot but I will get to that shortly. In the meantime, there are acrobatic, relentless songs and dances played before an audience that was so primed, so quick to respond quickly and express extreme enthusiasm that I wondered what they were on. Yes, opening night audience can be extremely passionate but the levels reached by this audience went, well, over, over the top.
“All that Jazz,” “Cell block tango,” and most of the numbers of the first act were done with energy, physical movements, synchronized athleticism and spirited singing to leave you breathless in your seat. This was spectacle for the sake of spectacle and the audience was in on it for the sheer thrill.
Somewhere and at some time during the first act, a plotline surfaced. We meet Roxie Hart (Chelsea Preston) and Velma Kelly (Jennifer Rider Shaw). They are entertainers but the important thing is that they have both murdered their husbands. They end up in jail with women of similar habits under the supervision Matron Mama Morton (Sandra Caldwell). There is a huge cast but there is no need to worry about most of them. Their singing and dancing, the brightly lit stage, the twirling lights and the screams of the audience will keep you enthralled without much regard for the plot’s details.
In the second half things do slow down and there is more plot development. The excellent Dan Chameroy as the crooked and greedy lawyer Billy Flynn will show his flair for acting and singing. Steve Ross as Amos Hart, the hapless husband of Roxie will provide some humour and pathos when he sings of himself as “Mr. Cellophane,” a person that no one notices. He gives a fine performance, and the audience gives him the opportunity to do so for a few minutes until it erupts with enthusiasm in recognition of his accomplishment.
The musical turns into outlandish burlesque as Roxie goes on trial for murdering her lover and then picks up energy again to lead to a climactic finish with the audience jumping on their feet and applauding with unstoppable zeal. Everyone in the cast took an individual bow and the applause barely subsided.
It is an extraordinary evening at the theatre where the audience joins the stage or the stage draws the audience to the stage in a marvelous symbiosis of performers and viewers that will stay with you.
Chicago, with book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, opened on June 3, 2022, and will run in repertory until October 30, 2022 at the Festival Theatre as part of the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca