Review: ‘Chicago’ at The Keegan Theatre

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With its snappy-saucy take on Chicago, The Keegan Theatre shows it knows how to give an audience the ol’ razzle-dazzle. And Keegan has done the durable musical proud. In fact in Keegan’s mounting of the quasi-naughty musical on a bare wood set in a decommissioned church, a case can be made that Chicago’s vaudeville-based storytelling works even better than it would in a glitzy Broadway house.

The cast of Chicago. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Set Designer Matthew J. Keenan drapes a worn red curtain to make a tacky proscenium, paints fake floorboards on the stage, installs tinny footlights at the edge, erects walls with see-through slats, builds bare-bones steps to a loft where the honky-tonky band hides—and presto we’re in the perfect sketchy playhouse to enjoy the sleazy scandals to come.

Under the indispensable musical direction of Jake Null, the second-story pit orchestra kicks off the bright and divey “Overture,” and Choreographer Rachel Leigh Dolan gets the joint jumping with dancers doing boy-girl bumps and grinds wearing Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson’s burlesque-inspired finery.

Is it getting hot in here or what?

Well, hell yeah. But under the sure hand of Co-directors Susan Marie Rhea and Mark A. Rhea, the show’s actual heat-generators are soon revealed: women who kill…and women actors who kill (pun intended).

Maria Rizzo as Roxie Hart in Chicago. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Foremost is Maria Rizzo as Roxie Hart, the brassy dame who becomes famous for shooting her lover and gets a vaudeville act out of the deal. In Rizzo’s riveting performance, Roxie is a bundle of vulnerability, with a fascinating tentativeness that reads as both insecurity and moxie. Rizzo can belt out a solo (her “Funny Honey,” is sensational), and she can high-kick like a chorine on caffeine. But it is in the quiet authenticity with which she conveys Roxie’s conflicted inner life that Rizzo’s performance becomes a star turn.

Right behind is Jessica Bennett as Velma, Roxie’s jailhouse rival for tabloid fame and ultimately her vaudeville partner. Bennett’s vocals are strong, her presence is appealing, and her robust dance moves tear up the stage. As the story goes, Roxie and Velma are an odd match—they parlay their notoriety as murderers into show business because, well, career options for ex-cons are limited. So there’s a not-quite-a-twosome tension in Rizzo’s and Bennett’s teamwork—as if to say: our individuated characters have not got lost in all that jazz.

Jessica Bennett as Velma Kelly with the cast of Chicago. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

If I were pressed to pick my favorite number in Chicago, it would be “Cell Block Tango,” and in Keegan’s production it gets a killer deployment from the chorus of murderesses: Katie McManus (Liz), Heather Gifford (Annie), Jennifer Hopkins (June), Jillian Wessel (Hunyak), Amber Jones (Mona), and Melrose Pyne (Go-To-Hell Kitty)—all under the baleful eye of Rikki Howie Lacewell as Matron Mama Morton, whose smokey vocals on “When You’re Good to Mama” are delightfully wry.

Michael Innocenti as Amos Hart in Chicago. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The men of Chicago are not to be outdone. Michael Innocenti as Roxie’s hapless hubby, Amos Hart, does a showstopping job on “Mr. Cellophane.” Wearing cartoony white gloves and a touching soulfulness, he milks comic pauses for all they’re worth.  Kurt Boehm as the debonaire and skeevy lawyer Billy Flynn slam-dunks his ventriloquist number, “We Both Reached for the Gun” (with Rizzo doing a drop-dead-hilarious dummy on his lap). The dance ensemble of men—Andre Hinds, Rj Pavel, Will Hayes, Kaylen Morgan—has two tall standouts, Hinds and Morgan, who partner Rizzo on “Roxie” with grace and flash. And Chris Rudy as the cross-dressing newshound Mary Sunshine delivers “A Little Bit of Good” with amusingly shrill operatic panache.

There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle and scads of sass and pizzazz on display in Keegan’s Chicago. Back in the 1970s, its legendary creators Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse, John Kander ingeniously packed the show’s plot and musical numbers into successive vaudeville acts; and on the Keegan stage, each such scene plays like a house afire. But in the end what sets Chicago apart as an American musical classic is its throughline of two down-and-out women with man troubles who become catty competitors then pick themselves up by their garter straps and decide they’re both better off in a bond. Not a thoroughly modern narrative of sisterly empowerment, perhaps, but thanks to a sterling production with two powerhouse female leads, it still works like a charm.

Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

Chicago has been extended through April 14, 2018, with Wednesday performances added, at The Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.