There may be no better time to bring back a show focused on the celebrity criminal.
Well, maybe you could say that about any decade, but this one seems particularly redolent of scandal, which makes Phamaly Theatre Company’s production of Chicago this summer a nice, seedy reminder of why we like stories from the swamp.
It’s certainly better to see it on stage than in, say, Washington, but that was the furthest thing from my mind during a recent matinee performance that really showed what Phamaly is capable of. Under the skilled hand of director Regan Linton, this show really soars, with a superb cast that breathes a lot of fresh life into the musical stalwart.
Phamaly doesn’t have its own theatre, but for Chicago they were able to make good use of the Studio Loft space on the fourth floor of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Center.
Erin Schneider as Velma
From the opening notes from the live band — helmed by musical director and pianist extraordinaire Donna Debreceni — this cast came to throw down and deliver an inspiring, gritty, funny and rather naughty performance. Based on some real news stories from the jazz-age 1920s in Chicago, the book was written by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb, with a score by Ebb and Fred Kander that’s packed with vaudeville-style tunes that give the performers plenty of opportunity to ham it up.
At the center of the action are Roxie Hart (Megan McGuire) and Velma Kelly (Erin Schneider), both accused murderers sitting in jail trying to pull every possible lever of fame, sexuality and, well, bitchiness to get free. Both of them are looking to their glam-attorney Billy Flynn — a tremendous and over-the-top Leonard Barrett Jr. — to get them off. But it’s a battle of egos from the get-go, with the stakes always on the rise as the tabloid reporters remain constantly on the alert for something newer and sexier to report on.
It’s Chicago — you know the story.
What to expect
Phamaly is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year as a theatre company dedicated to giving artists with disabilities opportunities to perform. What audiences will experience is a first-rate production where the actors may have physical disabilities you can see and others you may not. McGuire, for example, has only half a left arm, which goes unremarked upon except for one quick gag where a cop trying to cuff her notes the lack of wrist and says “Oh, shit!”
The set is built for actors in wheelchairs or walkers to easily make their entrances and exits, and production designer Nicholas Renaud has it all dialed in to accommodate anyone. True to the show, there are plenty of big dance numbers, choreographed to match all the players’ physical abilities by Debbie Stark and Ronnie Stark.
All of it is in service to the fast-moving plot that spins us through the ups and downs of the two women and their flamboyant attorney while the press — nominally led by gossip columnist Little Mary Sunshine (a creepily effective Phillip Lomeo in drag) — is on them like flies.
Two other standout performances are by Laurice Quinn, who plays the prison queen bee “Mama” Morton. She has a tremendous intro number (“When You’re Good to Mama”) that takes the trope of being someone’s cellblock bitch to new levels (or new lows, depending on your level of prudishness — I thought it was a bit much).
The other comes from Robert Michael Sanders, who plays Roxie’s long-suffering husband, Amos. Sanders gets a lot of out of this character, standing as the one person in the show who’s not an egotistical caricature. His solo weeper “Mr. Cellophane” is beautifully sung and touching — a sad proxy for anyone who’s left out of the spotlight.
Watching these actors do such a fine job with a complex piece of musical theatre is inspiring, no doubt. But go because it’s a great show performed with talent, grace and boundless enthusiasm — a fine tentpole for Phamaly’s 30th anniversary season.