Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Directed by Becky Beth Benedict
The Opera House Players at the Broad Brook Opera House, 107 Main Street, Broad Brook, CT through February 26
An also-ran when it debuted in 1975 opposite A Chorus Line on Broadway, Chicago could have been one of the lesser-appreciated musicals in theatre history. Fortunately, the sleek Tony-winning Broadway revival reminded everyone what a great show Chicago is. The 1996 stripped-down, sexed-up version had impeccable timing.
Immediately following the bloated excesses of many a Broadway mega-spectacle, the Ann Reinking-Bebe Neuwirth edition focused on the score and the cast with precious little else to distract. The production was also hot on the heels of the O.J. Simpson trial. Turns out Chicago’s cynical take on celebrity murder trials as entertainment was right at home in the United States two decades after its original Broadway premiere. Sixteen years later, the three-ring media circus that was the Casey Anthony Trial and Chicago (which is still slaying them on Broadway) both illustrate that crime can pay big time.
The Opera House Players production, like the “merry murderesses” at the dark heart of the show, kills on many levels. The performances across the board are terrific. The production, however, commits another crime – a lack of originality. The black leotards, garters and sheer fabric from the Broadway production are all here. The Bob Fosse-cum-Anne Reinking choreography is pretty much cribbed step for step. Even Renee Zellwegger and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ wigs from the Academy Award-winning film have been called into service.
With the Broadway production running two hours south of us and the national tour having crisscrossed the Nutmeg State several times, many of us have seen this version of Chicago. I saw the show a few months ago at The Playhouse on Park where I similarly took that production to task for lifting, uncredited, much of the work of the director, designers and choreography of the Broadway revival. The thing that made the 1996 production so exciting was that it was fresh, thrilling and daring. Copying someone else’s work, not so much.
Now this is not to take away from the accomplished cast of the Opera House Players. Even when following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, James Naughton and Queen Latifah, they manage to put themselves across the footlights beautifully. First and foremost, you cannot have a Chicago thriller without two killer-dillers in the leads and this production delivers with Nicole Giugere as Velma and Meg Fenton Funk as Roxie. Giugere has a set of pipes that blow the roof off the charming Broad Brook Opera House, while Funk digs into the humorous side of Roxie and dances beautifully.
Jeff Clayton makes for a perfectly slick and sleazy Billy Flynn. His charming demeanor and booming baritone fit the role as beautifully as his tux. Kathi Such is a surprisingly sexy Matron “Mama” Morton, a role usually butched up and not played for leggy appeal. Her duet with Giugere on “Class,” is a laugh-riot showstopper.
The two surprise stand-outs in the cast are Mike King as Amos Hart and P. Stone as Mary Sunshine. With both roles only having one major number, they tend to be also-rans alongside the hammier parts in the show. King makes a winsome, lovable Amos, the cuckolded husband of Roxie. P. Stone has a stellar coloratura soprano, raising Mary Sunshine’s “Little Bit of Good in Everyone” into the finest performance I’ve seen of the song on Broadway or otherwise.