Chicago is one of the most well-known and beloved musicals of all time. Its Broadway premier in 1975 was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Indeed, while not mandatory, the musical is still commonly regarded as a “Fosse Musical” requiring a specific style of dance indicative of the late creator.
The 1975 Broadway production was nominated for ten Tony Awards including Best Musical. The 1996 Broadway revival was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning six including Best Revival. The revival is still running today and holds the record for the longest-running musical revival and the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.
In 2002 Rob Marshall adapted the musical to the silver screen. The movie starred Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John C. Riley, and Richard Gere and won six Academy Awards including Best Picture.
BACK WHEN IT BEGAN
Every Broadway musical has its origins. Maybe it’s an original idea the writer had in the shower one morning, or maybe it’s based on a popular book, or a story on the news. In the case of Chicago, the musical is based on a 1926 play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins.
Although in many ways different than the musical, it contained many of the same characters and the same general storyline. It was inspired by two 1924 court cases involving women accused of murder who both beat the charges.
Originally titled Brave Little Women, the play was actually written as a part of a class assignment at Yale University. It proved popular and moved to Broadway in 1926. A silent melodrama film was made in 1927 and in 1942 it was again adapted to the screen as a Ginger Rogers comedy.
Elgin Theatre Company is a wonderful fine arts group that does the most with limited scenery and sets – preferring to put the focus primarily on the story and the acting. They do a nice mixture of well-known moneymakers and more avant-garde and experimental selections.
Now playing through May 21st at Elgin Art Showcase about an hour outside of the Windy City, ETC is presenting a very unique theatrical experience: Chicago – The Play, an adaptation of the original Watkins stage play.
It is a long play, but one that features some curious characters and strong performances. It’s also extremely enlightening to see where the musical originated. You see where the different blockbuster songs got their inspiration and how different characters evolved. It is really fascinating.
Written and adapted by Julie Price, Chicago – The Play is the story of Roxie Hart, a housewife who kills her lover when he rejects her. Her clueless and loyal husband Amos stands by her and funds her defense, although we all know he will be left in the end.
IN THE COOLER
While in the Cook County Jail awaiting trial, Roxie is under the supervision of Mama Matron who lovingly looks over the ladies under her care. And, for a price, she will give extra attention – such as to well-to-do socialite Velma, also accused of murder.
Roxie is represented by lawyer Billy Flynn, a man who specializes in defending women, and has great success doing it. But, like most things in life, his services come with a great price. In this case that price is $5,000, a hefty fee by anyone’s standards circa the 1920s.
Flynn’s nemesis is assistant state’s attorney Martin S. Harrison, who is determined to use the Roxie Hart case as a launch to a career in private practice. Meanwhile two reporters, Jake at the Chicago Gazette and Mary Sunshine at the Evening Star, see that the case is tired by the press in the court of public opinion. They happily feed the public’s lust for juicy stories about Roxie and her trial, with more regard for flashy headlines than the truth.
Far more so than the famous musical it inspired, in the play Roxie is the total center of attention. The ETC production took its time finding the right actress to play Roxie, holding rounds of auditions until the perfect actress walked through the door. And, the wait paid off.
Jocelyn Adamski provides a magnificent performance as the central character of Roxie Hart. Her characterization is wildly vivid and yet delicately nuanced. She finds every comic opportunity, without ever being forced. And, she excels equally in every dramatic moment. She is a joy to watch and truly makes the show.
Amber Dow’s Mama Matron is far different than the character popularized in the musical version. In the musical, Mama is 100% about Mama’s bottom line. In the play version, Mama still likes to receive padding to her bank account, but it isn’t her only driving force. She honestly cares about the women she oversees and wants the best for them.
Like Adamski, Dow adeptly dances between comedy and drama. She finds the appropriate moments for a wide range of emotional responses. Hers is a well-rounded character and very entertaining to enjoy.
Roxie’s high priced defense attorney Billy Flynn is also a different animal in the play than in the musical. In the musical, he is the ultimate showman – a handsome city slickster with a charming smile. For the ETC production, William Athow’s Billy Flynn is a Southern gentleman for whom law is a roadmap, getting from accused to acquitted by following a simple path.
IN IT FOR THEMSELVES
There are a number of interesting performances from the supporting cast. Josh Dizon plays the reporter Jake from the Gazette. He infuses his character with a constant smile – but its sincerity changes depending on who he is talking to.
Like everyone in the play, as a representative of the press Jake is out for himself. Other reporters include Eileen Mitchell as Mary Sunshine and Kamari McNeal as a stringer for the Ledger Reporter.
Gabor Mark is right on point as ASA Harrison. He is prosecuting the case not to pursue justice, but to pursue his own interests.
Devon Ortiz plays Roxie’s dutiful husband Amos, whose go-to expression is “I’m not as dumb as I look.” Even without the song “Mr. Cellophane” it is still a fun role for any actor to play and Ortiz clearly loves getting to explore all the facets of the character.
Carol Brown has the facial expressions of someone battling to stay in reality down pat as Liz, one of Roxie’s fellow inmates. Liz is absolutely bonkers, yet sometimes it is the ones society labels as crazy who speak the most poignant truths.
Velma is a smaller role than in the musical, and is far different as well. Velma, played by Kim Green, is a jet setter who has a family fortune and the divorce settlements from numerous ex-husbands to finance her defense.
Ira Gerard is a whirlwind of energy as new inmate Go-to-Hell Kitty who shows up in the second act to threaten Roxie’s status as the queen of headlines. Another inmate, Moonshine Maggie, is played with tenderness by Yizleibis Barreto.
There are two roles in the ETC play that don’t appear in the musical adaptation that have players who deserve to be called out. Ryan Segovich is a breath of fresh air as an overbearing radio preacher. You can’t help but despise him. Meanwhile Elizabeth Kubis De Vries provides beautiful offstage singing as Chi Town Cindy to cover scene changes. She is accompanied by the talented Akul Sharma on piano.
Rounding out the cast are Dwight Brown as the Bailiff, Larry Green as the Judge, Ken Craig as Sgt. Murdock, and Cindy Brown as Widow Casely.
In the end, the story shows how everyone is out for their own best interest – the accused, the lawyers, and the reporters. It’s also a story about how you can get away with anything if you have the right looks and the right bank balance. Although the play was written in the 1920s, these themes are still prevalent today. Thankfully ETC’s Chicago – The Play takes them on with humor and style.
Chicago – The Play performs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at Elgin Art Showcase located at 164 Division Street, Elgin, IL. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 PM; Sunday performances are at 2 PM and feature Sign Language interpretation by Andrew Ross.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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