… and makes it look easy. Chicago is an ambitious production and the Peregrine Theatre Ensemble, presenting the musical as part of its fifth-year anniversary summer, absolutely owns it.
Everyone knows the history: Chicago is Broadway’s longest-running musical, the winner of six Tony awards, two Olivier awards, and a Grammy. And Adam Berry, executive director of the Peregine Theatre Ensemble, has always wanted to work on it with director and choreographer Kyle Pleasant. When Peregrine finally obtained the rights, Berry sent Pleasant an email with a simple subject line: “And All That Jazz.” Pleasant understood right away.
What he then did with Chicago is, quite simply, awesome. This is the best of everything: directing, acting, dancing, set design, costumes, lighting—there just isn’t anything in this production that isn’t absolutely spot-on right.
So: the story. Chicago in the roaring twenties wasn’t a town for the faint of heart, and was even less so after experiencing a spate of real-life murders committed by women against various male partners. On death row in a women’s facility, the famous Velma Kelly (played by Katie O’Rourke) is awaiting trial, represented by smarmy lawyer Billy Flynn (Ben Berry). Velma opens the musical with All That Jazz, but it’s really the third piece, the Cell Block Tango, that shows the audience what this cast can do. It’s gorgeous choreography, but that’s not all. It’s pitch-perfect singing, it’s fantastic dancing. It’s got pathos, and humor (“he ran into my knife. He ran into it 10 times”), and more than a little sexiness.
And then Roxie Hart (Maddie Garbaty) kills her lover and joins the death row club, and in the process overshadows Velma in both notoriety and access to Billy. O’Rourke is a fantastic dancer—she has to be, with Velma’s moves—and it’s easy to see the desperation she feels when she perceives both fame and freedom slipping away from her. But it’s easy to see, also, how Roxie eclipses Velma, because Garbaty absolutely steals the show: she’s cute, she’s innocent, she’s evil, she’s scheming, she’s humorous… Garbaty expresses all of Roxie’s sides, her little-girlishness, her cold calculation, her will to survive, and somehow in the process makes Roxie a real person. We want her to be okay even as we despise parts of her persona.
Maybe a little like our own selves.
Chicago raises issues for a 2017 audience that Fosse & Co. would probably have never imagined. In an arguably post-truth era, its take on the judicial process underlines the adage that there’s nothing new under the sun. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the prologue begins, “you are about to witness a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery. All the things we hold near and dear to our hearts.”
Peregrine’s take on all those “near and dear” things underscores both that the story is happening in another time (Berry’s Billy actually sounds like a voice off a 75-rpm record) and that it’s simultaneously all-too-real for a Trump-era audience. The constant presence of the media—and how that media is manipulated—is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and Chicago demonstrates its power, from courting media stars to dictating the course of justice.
You leave not just with the enjoyment of a brilliant show, but with nagging questions that keep you thinking long after the curtain has gone down. Is this justice? How can a corrupt system be changed? What role does communication play? What constitutes fairness?
The answers aren’t here: only the questions. But what a way to think about them! From Ellen Rousseau’s lush art-deco scenic design (no, that’s actually not a contradiction in terms) to Seth Bodie’s sexy and vulnerable costumes, the play exudes visual candy. Pleasant’s timing in both direction and choreography couldn’t be better, as the audience enjoys, appreciates, even laughs… and then immediately after wonders why.
I went to see Chicago with a friend, herself an actor, who was transfixed. We took advantage of the special pre-show dinner offered by The Pointe restaurant at Crowne Pointe Inn, practically next door to the theater: a three-course prix-fixe meal for $35 (at most places in town, that price describes the entrée), which was absolutely delicious and made for an elegant and memorable dinner-and-theatre experience.
Back on stage, “It’s all a circus,” says Berry in summary, “a three-ring circus. This trial…the whole world…it’s all show business.” Then he adds, “But, kid… you’re working with a star.”
For the Peregrine Theatre Ensemble, this whole show is a star. Make sure that you get to see it.
Photo credits for Chicago: Michael and Sue Karchner, for The Pointe restaurant: Provincetown Tourism.