Saturday, January 11, 2020

STAGES’ Chicago Heats Things Up at HART

Photo by Frank Hunt

By Tina Arth

Chicago holds the record as the longest running musical  (and the longest running musical revival) in Broadway history. It is a challenging show – doing it well requires not only fine actors and solid vocals, but also top-notch choreography delivered with style and precision to honor Bob Fosse’s original vision. I have seen two productions of Chicago that really knocked my socks off, and remarkably, both were done by high schoolers, and both in Hillsboro (must be something in the water?). My first trip to Chicago via Hillsboro was over a decade ago, my second just last Saturday night at HART Theatre, where an amazing STAGES cast is drawing full houses and copious cheers for the relatively new (2017) high school edition of the Kander and Ebb classic.  Director/choreographer Linda Anderson has assembled a dynamite cast from an enthusiastic and talented mix of STAGES veterans and newcomers, and the result will surprise anyone skeptical about the potential of youth theater.

The story hasn’t changed much for the high school edition – just a slight reduction in overt sexual themes and adult language, a few songs removed. It’s still a broad parody of the glitz and glamour that defined the “American Dream” of the Roaring Twenties – set in Chicago, where almost anything goes. We see chorus girl Roxie Hart murder her lover, then convince her hapless schlub of a husband, Amos, to take the rap. Roxie’s cover story falls apart, and she ends up in jail with several other notorious female killers, including vaudevillian Velma Kelly, currently the darling of the sensational and sentimental press. Headline grabbing lawyer Billy Flynn adds Roxie to his caseload (he already represents Velma) and the two women compete for headlines, public support, and Billy’s attention. The ultimate goal is not just acquittal – the women are convinced that their time in the spotlight will propel them to stardom.

I think one reason Chicago works so well is that, despite the darkly mature themes, the authors have taken a playful view of the material that meshes beautifully with the natural joie de vivre of a stage full of singing, dancing teens. Neither the dancing nor the vocals are perfect in the STAGES production – but they are brimming with an energy and vitality that really bring the material to life. There is no self-consciousness in the STAGES cast’s embrace of Bob Fosse’s inimitable style – the rolling shoulders, turned in knees, hip thrusts and shuffling that manage to be simultaneously sexy and silly – somewhere between conventional dance and pantomime in unison.  These kiddos have worked hard to make it look easy, and the result is not to be missed.

Riley Irvine is spectacular as Roxie Hart – she’s lithe, flexible, cute as a murderous little bug, and she pulls off her vocals with panache. I especially loved her “Me and My Baby” with Kada and Logan Switzer as a pair of adorable (if somewhat oversized) dancing babies. Madeline Hui has lots of evil fun as Roxie’s rival and ultimate partner, Velma Kelly, starting by belting out her audience-grabbing lead in “All That Jazz” and showing off her vocal and physical flexibility with an eye-catching rendition of “I Can’t Do It Alone.” Margaret Burden’s physicality and stage presence as “Mama Morton” had me scrabbling in my program to be sure I had not misread her age, because twelve-year-olds simply are not supposed to bring that level of maturity to a role!

While many of the best roles in Chicago are reserved for women, there are a couple of key male roles, and STAGES captured some solid performers to fill these parts. Jamie Burgess is appropriately sleazy as Billy Flynn, and he showcases a solid voice and dancer’s fluidity in one of the show’s funniest numbers, “We Both Reached for the Gun.”  For me, the portrayal of Amos Hart can make or break the show, and in the beginning I was a little skeptical that Kit Webster was the right guy for the job. However, Webster’s “Mr. Cellophane” number demonstrated that he really understood not just the role, but the brilliant Bert Williams character that inspired the song, and he took me to the brink of tears.

In addition to acting as director and choreographer, Linda Anderson also gets credit for the show’s fabulous costumes – while the book for the original show may have been modified to PG, the girls were allowed to flaunt some fine bodies in attire appropriate to the era, tasteful but far, far from puritanical. With a very simple, almost black box set, the lighting is key to creating Chicago’s razzle dazzle; Anderson’s concept and Brian Ollom and Jacque Davies’ lighting design are executed flawlessly.

Go to the STAGES website and buy tickets right away – only two more weekends, and several shows are close to selling out.

STAGES’ Chicago runs through Sunday, January 19th, at HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro.

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