Steamy ‘Chicago’ heats up Muny stage

“Chicago” at the Muny

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

It was not the St. Louis heat wave, but the hot, hot, hot production of “Chicago” that brought The Muny stage to the boiling point on the mercifully cool opening night.

This is the Muny’s premiere production of “Chicago,” the wildly popular Broadway musical based on a classic 1926 non-musical play by Maureen Dallas Watkins. The 2002 version starred Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere as murderous chorus girls Roxie and Velma, and their slick, high profiled criminal lawyer, Billy Flynn.  Roxie and Velma stand accused of separate murders and both seek the services of Billy Flynn, charmer of juries.

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In the Muny production, Roxie Hart is superbly portrayed by Patti Murin and Velma Kelly, her love-hate partner on stage and in crime is presented with the right combination of sass and class by Natascia Diaz. Diaz, sporting a Louise Brooks black helmet hairstyle, and Murin, as the not-as-dumb-as-she-looks blonde showgirl, spark off of each other in sultry, seductive numbers like “My Own Best Friend” and “Hot Honey Rag.”  Justin Guarini acts, sings and dances skillfully as Flynn. Dean Christopher is a standout as Roxie’s hapless husband Amos Hart, who evokes genuine audience empathy in his number “Mister Cellophane,” the lament of a man who people can see right through or just not notice at all.

Director/choreographer Denis Jones keeps the action flowing briskly, and scenic designers Steve and Sam Gilliam and the Muny crew create a replica of a Chicago speakeasy, where much of the show’s action takes place. There is also a nifty roll-in courtroom prop, complete with a judge’s bench, witness stand and jury box.  The music and lyrics by the storied team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb remain fresh and bitingly funny, and “Chicago” has many elements in common with Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” complete with an emcee, “divinely decadent” show girls and raunchy dialogue.

“Chicago” is not your typical “family friendly” Muny show.  There are more than a few not-so-fleeting expletives in the dialogue and song lyrics, but the producers wisely did not wimp out by “bleeping” the raunchier words.  After all, this is 2012, not 1926 and most American kids are exposed to any and all of the off-color words in “Chicago” before they hit middle school.  (There are no “f-bombs” thrown, but there are lots of words that at one time George Carlin would have said he could not say on radio).  The issue of coarse language and lack of manners is hilariously addressed in the show itself in the song “Class,’ sung by Velma and Matron “Mama” Morton, played to perfection by Jackie Hoffman.

The main characters are bolstered by the high energy dancing by the large ensemble who bring verve, athleticism and just the right amount of erotic excitement to every number.

Muny Executive Producer Mike Isaacson Isaacson, in his production notes, points out that the Muny’s first plays this season (the first was “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) are set in the Jazz Age, but notes that “Chicago” couldn’t be more different: “‘Chicago’” is about murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery,” he writes. “Given these subjects, is there any wonder why ‘Chicago’ has been number one on our survey for three years?”

“Chicago” manages to make its grim subject matter highly entertaining and funny.  Viewers of the daily and nightly news who are fed a steady diet of real-life murder, greed, violence, etc., can gain a welcome respite from the truly tragic mayhem by enjoying the hilarious high jinks of the Muny’s premiere production of “Chicago.”

Bring plenty of cool water; this show is truly “too hot not to cool down!”