Long before Annalise Keating displayed tremendous legal savvy, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly knew how to get away with murder in the Windy City of the Roaring Twenties. And it’s a lot of fun seeing these merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail compete to the hilt behind bars and in the press while enticing with delicious decadence in Wright State University’s marvelous production of John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s cynically satiric 1975 musical “Chicago.”
Deftly directed by Joe Deer with a striking emphasis on the show’s original vaudevillian framework, expertly heightened by choreographer Teressa Wylie McWilliams, scenic designer Adam Koch and costumer Michelle Sampson, this “Chicago” takes hold and is firmly grounded from the outset thanks to the dynamic pairing of triple threats Bailey Rose (Roxie) and Caroline Chisholm (Velma). Chisholm, resembling Academy Award-winner Catherine Zeta-Jones who portrayed Velma in the 2002 film, launches the action with a sultry, sharply focused “All That Jazz” and impressively showcases her dancing skills in “I Can’t Do It Alone” and “When Velma Takes the Stand.” But at the same rate, she doesn’t discount Velma’s desperation and bruised ego due to her standing in the press (she killed her husband and vaudeville partner-sister after finding them in bed together) as Roxie overtakes her on the front pages having murdered her lover Fred Casely. Rose, memorable last season as Wendy Darling in “Peter Pan,” absolutely dazzles in her first scene bringing astute character choices and lyric-driven brilliance to the humorous “Funny Honey” detailing Roxie’s “affection” for her meek husband Amos. Once she arrives at the introspective “Roxie,” a fascinating peek into Roxie’s dalliances and desire for stardom, Rose transforms into a fiery, unyieldingly determined force to be reckoned with specifically as Roxie is overtaken by socialite Go-To-Hell Kitty (a feisty Alex Caldwell) and comes up with a pregnancy stunt to regain favor to Velma’s dismay. Deer wisely ensures Roxie and Velma remain rivals at all costs (there is definite bad blood between these ladies) so it is a joy to see Rose and Chisholm fully ignite the show’s final moments wonderfully unified with seductively sexy, electrifying finesse in “Nowadays” and “Hot Honey Rag.” Demanding total syncopation and synergy, these two numbers are performed at such a high professional-caliber proficiency you’ll wonder if you’re actually seeing “Chicago” at WSU or in the form of a national tour at the Schuster Center.
Additionally, the confident, suave, vocally strong, and remarkably mature Jordan Adams is a true find as Roxie and Velma’s super slick lawyer Billy Flynn, whose love of law doesn’t compare to his love of women. Adams embodies Billy as a sophisticated showman totally accustomed to the fickle, gullible nature of the press. In fact, during Adams’ excellent rendition of the press-driven “We Both Reached for the Gun,” pay heed to Billy stepping aside to scribble a few lines of copy on the pad of reporter Mary Sunshine (an appropriately ambiguous Cody Westbrook). Tyler Simms, a delightful Smee in “Peter Pan,” is equally winning as the dejected Amos. Simms’ mesmerizing interpretation of “Mister Cellophane” truly conveys the isolation, loneliness and timidity permeating within Amos’ soul as he simply yearns for recognition and respect. Katie Momenee, a standout in “Sondheim on Sondheim” last season, lacks intimidating seediness as Matron “Mamma” Morton, but she sings the role very well and commands attention. Keaton Eckhoff (Fred Casely) enjoyably accents the vaudevillian structure as he gleefully introduces each song. Haylee Dobkins (June), Alyson Snyder (a poignant Hunyak), Megan Valle (Mona), Meredith Zahn (Liz), Chisholm, and Caldwell join forces for a splendidly fierce and vengeful “Cell Block Tango,” one of many remarkable routines meticulously crafted by McWilliams in the iconic spirit of Fosse while altogether original. The slinky, praiseworthy ensemble includes Briana Koon, Rebekah Espich, Scotti Stoneburner, Lindsey Knoth, Hannah Struppa, Eli Davis, Aaron Johnson, Dakota Mullins, Kyle Sell, and Philip Stock.
Deer’s top-notch artistic team includes lighting designer Matthew P. Benjamin, sound designer James Dunlap, dialect coaches Deborah Thomas and Matthew Tabor, magic consultant Kyle Miller (the circus-themed “Razzle Dazzle” eerily enthralls with surreal mystery), and music director Scot Woolley who leads a red hot 12-piece onstage orchestra.
It’s unsurprising the pursuit of fleeting fame and the effects of a topsy-turvy judicial system still strikes a chord in today’s celebrity-crazed world. Nearly everybody wants to be somebody famous, but it’s a detrimental quest. As Billy tells Roxie, “You’re a phony celebrity, kid.” Luckily for theatergoers, there’s nothing false about the commitment and passion within this rip-roaring “Chicago,” which received special permission to be mounted courtesy of Kander and is so period-perfect I felt as if I were watching an episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
Don’t miss your chance to discover why WSU lays claim to one of Ohio’s finest collegiate musical theater programs. It’s the real deal. And that’s good isn’t it?
“Chicago” continues through Nov. 15 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Nov. 4, 5 and 12 at 7 p.m., Nov. 6, 7, 13 and 14 at 8 p.m., and Nov. 7, 8, 14 and 15 at 2 p.m. Act One: 78 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call WSU box office at (937) 775-2500 or visit www.wright.edu/theatre-tickets.