THE LADIES OF ‘CHICAGO’ MAKE SURE WE KNOW WE ‘HAD IT COMIN’ AND GET AWAY WITH MURDER IN THE BEST WAY.
THIS JAIL ROCK MUSICAL FINALLY
GETS STAGED AT THE OAKLAND OUTDOOR STAGE.
The Razzle Dazzle of CHICAGO The Musical has taken over the Oakland hills as Woodminster Summer Musicals continues to celebrate their 50th season. Roxie and Velma are currently fighting for their freedom from men “who had it coming”, in a vintage bright and very jazz hands production of CHICAGO through August 14th at the outdoor stage. Managing director, Harriet Schlader, says,“For several years, CHICAGO has been our most requested show at Woodminster, and we're thrilled to be able to produce it during our 50th anniversary season - Every time we put out a ballot, CHICAGO is the top choice. And we’ve been actively applying for rights to produce it for at least 6 years. We’re excited that we were finally approved this year, and that we can provide this special treat for our audience in our 50th season.”
Based on a 1926 play by Maureen Dallas Watkins focused on her experiences as a crime reporter in the corrupt courts. It is a jail house show about murder, greed, corruption and treachery in Chicago circa 1920. The story follows domestic killers Roxie Hart played by the sassy Deborah Leamy and Velma Kelly played by the terrific Christine Marie Capsuto. They meet in a city jail, where they compete for their freedom from murder and domestic violence based on how much press their lawyer, Billy Flynn, played by the dapper, Dwight Mahabir, can create for them. CHICAGO gets away with murder not just because its main character, the heroine with moxie, Roxie Hart, is acquitted for a killing she clearly committed. It’s because the story manages to sell its songs, and it sells them hard starting right from the top with “All That Jazz.” The music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, written in 1975, are clever and catchy. Director and Woodminster vet Joel Schlader assembled a marvelous cast using for the most part, seasoned actors not from his family of regulars to the Oakland company.
Schlader brought in some Fosse vets including the show's choreographer, Lainie Sakakura, a native of the Bay Area who now lives in New York; she is credited for her work on dance reconstruction and as dance captain for the 1999 Tony Award-winning show "Fosse." Sakakura brought in many of her own equity dancers to create some sizzling dance numbers including “Cell Block Tango” and “Me and My Baby”. The choreography created by Bob Fosse back in 1975 is clearly honored in this more vintage production. Chicago isn't just the story, it also is the mark of theater legend Fosse, who choreographed the original show, and is partly a homage to the city where he was born.
If you’ve got a great Roxie, you’ve got a full proof CHICAGO. After all, if you’re gonna root for a gal you know is guilty of murder, she’s got to earn your love. Deborah Leamy, a riveting powerhouse of a performer who sings, dances and tells a joke with charm, fills those shoes. She keeps the material fresh and sets a tone the cast follows and she opens the show with “Funny Honey”. Everyone gets it and goes for it: Capsuti as Velma proves her vocal chops in the classic “And All That Jazz” with eye catching dance moves with the ensemble of talented dancers. Local favorite Jenny Matteucci as the jailhouse Mama Morton belts out her classic “When You’re Good to Mama” she reprised the Matron from her excellent performance at Stage1 in Newark Ca. Matteucci brings a vibrant charm to Mama. The leading male in this female stage of killers is their lawyer Billy Flynn, played with dapper class by Dwight Mahabir. He sings “All I Care About” missing some of that lawyer swagger, but he warms up later in the story.
Schlader’s direction is vibrant and decadent fun, despite a few awkward moments opening night. This troupe of actor/dancers are dressed in garter belts and classic 1920s style suits and flapper dresses designed by Alison Morris. She kept Velma and Roxie sexy yet still poignant in their prison greys. The one black garter belt stocking and the other off, adds a great sloppy vintage look that reminds you of Fosse's Cabaret.
Velma, who is not happy about being ignored in the headlines needs the sympathy from a tabloid reporter named Mary Sunshine played by the whitty and stunning Damian Chambers who shines in her solo “A Little Bit of Good”. Woodminster vet Rod Edoria kept Miss Sunshine's wig and makeup not too camp yet funny and smooth. The first act production number “We Both Reach For The Gun” with Roxie, Billy and cast was a show stopper featuring the entire enthusiastic ensemble. Under the music direction of Daniel Thomas, his excellent 13 piece orchestra is part of the story and is set on stage with the cast. This Las Vegas type look is how Ebb and Fosse originally designed the show.
The built-in strength of Kander and Ebb’s score fits the Oakland venue well. “Chicago’’ offers a tangy slice early on with “Cell Block Tango,’’ in which Velma and a host of other murderesses, fully realized by Harmony Livingston, Ashley Cowl, Allison Naganuma, Jillian Owens and tall elegant Heather Klobukowski. All behind bars facing the audience, take turns spelling out just how and why they dispatched the brut men in their lives, punctuating it with the defiant refrain: “He had it comin’/He had it comin’/He only had himself to blame.’’
Amos Hart, Roxie’s husband, is overly maudlin, but Sebastian Romeo delivers a solid performance even if his main solo “Mr. Cellophane” is a bit off; the opening night audience fell for his invisible likeability. It is Mama who says of Chicago: “In this town, murder’s a form of entertainment.’ and Matteucci and Capsulo steal the stage when Velma and Mama sing “Class”.
To Billy Flynn the justice system is just another branch of showbiz, a notion made plain in the clever “Razzle Dazzle,’’ Mahabir is confident in this number as the lawyer elaborates on his methods of shenanigans while the ensemble dances sinuously around him in a circus fashion.
Sakakura uses the entire space to fill the stage with her talented dancers and keen choreography. The dancers and company that fill out the other roles of the two and half hour show, include the talents of Sarah Stahl, Phoebe Tamble, Adam Rogers, Ken Scott and Woodminster favorites Charlie Fields and Oscar Tsukayama.
Travis Patton is dramatic and swaggers as Roxie’s short-lived lover Fred Casely and Mark Reis plays the arrogant Chicago cop Sergeant Fogarty. Reis and Patton were part of the “Fosse” national tour and you can see both their professional dance skills throughout the show as they do solos with Leamy in the steamy “Roxy” dance number. Katherine Stein plays the final jailrock killer Kitty and has a memorable part stealing the headlines from Roxy and Velma.’
The craft team of CHICAGO brings this dance show a more classic and vintage vs the touring productions that kept the set and props simple. Maggie Lamb’s set design brings those classic Woodminster levels and balconies since it is such a large space to fill. She makes sure to use both side upper levels for Roxie and Velma's’ solos. Yet Lamb’s overdone city back drop was distracting and over painted. The highlight of her set were the rows of show lights and the orchestra on stage. It all mixed well with Jon Gourdine’s light design highlighted by follow spots that steal the scene in “Mr. Cellophane” and his use of black lights to capture those “Jazz Hands”. The props by Liza Danz included an array of guns for the women and cameras for the press, and wonderful boa feathers for Billy's entrance. The sound design by Carole Davis was full-throttle making sure the two killers hit every note to the back of the amphitheatre.
Fosse would be pleased by the dancing which still carries his trademarks. It is carnality in motion, abounding in convulsive wiggling, thrusts, popped shoulders, splayed fingers, top hats hoisted on high. This “Chicago’’ is electrifying yet still needs some love that I am sure will come closing weekend. With the orchestra set up center stage, and wailing Chicago in the ’20s, the music, the lyrics, and the sex, this version delivers. All of that and the Razzle Dazzle will warm your seat as you always need to bring warm clothes to this outdoor venue.
This summer Woodminster continues to offer its "kids come free" program for children 16 or younger who attend the shows with paying adults. CHICAGO is family friendly despite its domestic violence subtext. Producers Associates has given more than 43,000 tickets away over the past 25 years and has put on 157 shows, entertaining about a million guests at the theater in Oakland's Joaquin Miller Park. CHICAGO is a great night of musical theatre not to be missed. As of August 11th four performances remain.
WOODMINSTER SUMMER MUSICALS
PRESENTS ITS 50TH SEASON
CHICAGO THE MUSICAL
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Musical Book and Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on a play by Maureen Dallas Watkins
Adaptation by David Thompson
Directed by Joel Schlader, Musical Direction by Daniel Thomas ,
Choreographer Lainie Sakakura
Only through August 14th
Woodminster Amphitheater, 3300 Joaquin Miller Road, Oakland
Tickets: $26 to $59 with each child free with a paying adult
Information: www.woodminster.com or 510-531-9597
Video and photo’s by Stephen Woo and Jon Kawamoto
References *SF Weekly and By Janet Levaux, Correspondent for BAY AREA NEWS SERVICE