Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Script adaptation by David Thompson. Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore. Until Oct. 30 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen St., Stratford. Stratfordfestival.ca and 800-567-1000.
If I could give this show five stars, I would.
Stellar director-choreographer Donna Feore outdoes herself with an impossibly entertaining production of the famed 1975 musical which ruthlessly satirizes the criminal justice system, one tear-it-down vaudeville number at a time.
As in her previous Stratford Festival productions, Feore embraces the multiple-threat talents of the performing company. Not only are the numbers astonishingly well sung and not only does the choreography explode with innovation, precision and risk, the acting is perfectly calibrated to deliver the material’s wicked wit.
The show was programmed for the 2020 Stratford season and postponed during the pandemic, so it’s an uncanny coincidence it opened in the same week the verdict came down on the most lurid celebrity trial in decades. While it’s not directly mentioned, the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp train wreck saturates the show’s already cynical take on jurisprudence with deeper levels of irony.
If you’re like me, those connections will take some time to land, in part because the trial at the center of the show doesn’t happen until the second act — and because the first act is so packed with great numbers and so seamlessly staged that you can barely stop to catch your breath.
The plot, based on a true story from 1920s Chicago, spins around two women accused of murder. Vaudeville artist Velma Kelly (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) is locked up in Cook County Jail for allegedly killing her adulterous husband and sister. Her crooked lawyer Billy Flynn (Dan Chameroy) has turned Velma into a media sensation, and she’s cruising towards acquittal. It’s the crime of Roxie Hart (Chelsea Preston) is accused of that gives the show its overall structure: she shoots her lover, is thrown in the pen, and persuades her hapless husband Amos (Steve Ross) to put up the money for Billy to defend here. As Roxie’s trial approaches, so does her rival with Velma escalate, as they struggle to stay in the public eye while other celebrity crimes steal the limelight.
The genius stroke of creators Fred Ebb (book and lyrics), Bob Fosse (book and original direction/ choreography) and John Kander (music) was to structure the musical as a vaudeville show: each element of the story is introduced as a new number with deadpan humor (“Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Velma Kelly in an act of desperation”).
The vaudeville structure lends the material both its lavish entertainment value and its deep irony. Many numbers have become musical theater classics: the show crashes open triumphantly with “All that Jazz” and only a few minutes later wows again with “Cell Block Tango,” in which Velma and five other accused murderesses tell how their cheating men “had it coming.” Throughout, the show serves up guilty pleasure: it’s gotta be wrong that such delicious fun comes out of betrayal, violence, and corruption, but oh, it feels so right.
Feore’s is the first major production of this musical in more than 30 years and the choreography bears her signature while honoring the sultry, angular spirit of Fosse’s original staging. The male and female choruses are stacked with amazing talent and Feore choreographs to their strengths: the kicks are impossibly high, the spins never seem to stop, and the precision of the hip flicks and quick turns is breathtaking. A darkly amusing trope throughout is perversely sexualized poses (female performers held upside down in the splits with the men’s heads hovering over their crotches, for example).
Rider-Shaw came up through the Stratford ranks, and with her Velma triumphantly gains star status: her singing, dancing and acting are superbly precise and she tears it down in the late Act 1 number “I Can’t Do it Alone.” Stratford newcomer Preston is equally impressive and shines in “Roxie,” the only number in the show that steps out of the 1920s period to comment on our era with a cleverly deployed hashtag.
The brilliance of Chameroy’s performance lies in his underplaying: he cruises through his big production numbers “All I Care About is Love” and “Razzle Dazzle” as if there were little effort involved, even though his singing and acting are perfection. Sandra Caldwell is delightfully brassy and shows off a killer belting voice as matron Mama Morton. That Ross is so convincingly pathetic as cuckolded Amos sets him up to bring the house down in “Mr. cellophane.” And just when you thought there couldn’t be anything left to boggle the mind, a Canadian musical theater star shows off next-level capacities for operatic singing as the reporter Mary Sunshine.
Franklin Brasz’s orchestra delivers the horn-heavy score with delightful flair. The design complements the double-edged nature of the material by containing both glamor and its opposite. Michael Gianfrancesco’s set of shiny grids and railings doubles as prison bars. Costume designer Dana Osborne’s silky and revealing lingerie for the showgirls is frequently covered up by striped prison dresses. And Michael Walton’s lighting dazzles until it abruptly doesn’t: the way the lights go out behind Roxie after her trial ends underscores the point that she’s become yesterday’s sensation.
There is no detail in this production — from the ingenious ways in which set shifts become part of the show’s meaning-making to the preshow stage setting and the bits of business opening the second act — that has not been precisely considered and delivered.
Cue my exit music: the Stratford Festival is back, baby, and it would be a crime to miss this indecently thrilling show.
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