Sex, Murder and All That Jazz at the New Theatre

Dionne Figgins as Velma Kelly in the New Theatre production of Chicago. Photo by Roy Inman.
Dionne Figgins as Velma Kelly in the New Theatre production of Chicago. Photo by Roy Inman.

The New Theatre production of Chicago may be the most technically polished show in the venerable Overland Park dinner theater’s history. That, at least, is how it looked to these eyes.

Director Richard Carrothers and his design team chose not to go with a Xerox of the popular revival, which has been running on Broadway for 20 years and has come through town on tour several times. Instead, this production offers a distinctive visual language of its own. The band is kept out of sight. Scenic designer Jim Misenheimer uses moveable, vertical columns suggestive of the skeleton of a skyscraper to create a flexible playing area.

Mishenheimer’s scenic elements are assisted considerably by Sean Glass and Randy B. Winder’s sumptuous lighting. Indeed, the production takes full advantage of the company’s capacity for visual wizardry. Throw in Jeffrey Cady’s striking video designs and Sarah M. Oliver’s sharp-looking costumes, and you’ve got a two-hour feast for the eyes.

That’s another way of saying that this is a very busy production — so much so that at times the material’s strengths get lost among the seductive visual effects.

Conceived by legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, Chicago is based on a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Fosse, working with composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb (who co-wrote the book with Fosse), subtitled the show “a musical vaudeville,” which dictated the structure.

Every number is a set piece, often introduced by a dancer functioning as an emcee. The idea was to evoke the ‘20s with a contemporary spin. The result is a delightfully cynical depiction of corruption in the courts and the press. Although set 90 years in the past, the material reverberates with obvious parallels to the present.

The spine of the story is the rise of two celebrity husband-killers — Velma Kelly (Dionne Figgins) and Roxie Hart (Libby Servais) who are turned into media sensations by a sleazy shark of a lawyer, Billy Flynn (Sean McDermott). Also in the mix are a sob-sister columnist and radio host Mary Sunshine (Julie Shaw); the anything-for-a-buck Cook County jail matron Mama Morton (Debra Bluford) and Roxie’s sad-sack husband, Amos (Phil Fiorini).

Kander’s jazz-influenced score often employs tropes that suggest vaudeville, but much of the show, as expected, is infused with Fosse’s timeless brand of 1950s/60s sexuality, personified by beautiful, long-legged dancers in tights and heels.

Servais captures the spirit of the show with an expressive, seductive performances as Roxie. The role as written is a stereotypical dumb blonde — but not too dumb to seize an opportunity. There’s just enough in the script for a sharp actress to imbue the role with recognizable human emotions and a hint of complexity, and that’s exactly what Servais does. As Velma, Figgins is an athletic presence and a gifted dancer. She anchors the big opening number — “All That Jazz” — and makes it a declaration, as if to say, “I’m here!” She belts every song. But her performance is generally opaque and lacks nuance.

McDermott boasts an impressive Broadway resume, but he never inhabits Billy Flynn, one of the great male roles in musical theater. Flynn enjoys his blithe sleaziness, but McDermott never quite captures that quality. His version of Billy seems too reticent. For reasons that aren’t quite clear, Billy never becomes the dominant presence he should be.

Members of the Kansas City acting pool deliver outstanding supporting performances, particularly Bluford, whose Mama Morton is an expansive force of nature. The show doesn’t offer Bluford many opportunities to fall back on her familiar schtick and the result is some of her best work. Fiorini, a fine character actor, delivers another in a succession of strong performances as Amos. And Shaw brings a subtle sense of humor to Mary Sunshine.

The show features a huge ensemble that includes some notable talents from Kansas City and elsewhere, including Kyle Dyck, Amy Hurrelbrink, Leah Kahn, Daria LeGrand, Mandy Morris and Katelyn Baron. Musical director Daniel Doss leads a six-piece band, which on Thursday night sounded note-perfect.

No doubt some people only know Chicago from the 2002 movie, which was a respectable adaptation. But the movie isn’t the stage show. This material was conceived for the theater. So if you’ve never seen it on stage, this production would be worth your time.

Chicago runs through Sept. 18 at the New Theatre, 9229 Foster, Overland Park. Call 913-649-7469 or visit www.newthreatre.com

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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