Effervescent Emptiness: CHICAGO

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(center) Angie Schworer as Roxie and Rick Pessagno as Billy Flynn give the press the scoop in CHICAGO at Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston June 13-23, 617 Lexington Street, Waltham. (Photo: Herb Philpott)

presented by Reagle Music Theatre

book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed and choreographed by Gerry McIntyre

Robinson Theater
617 Lexington St
Waltham, MA
June 13th – 23rd, 2013
Reagle Music Theatre Facebook Page

Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Waltham) Personally, I’ve had a hard time with plays that take on the rollicking 20’s. It’s rare to come across a script that strikes the right balance between the era’s bubbly exuberance and its tragically-wasted potential. Anything Goes was written too close to the source material to really make sense anymore. Guys and Dolls is more coherent, but still stubbornly devoid of subtext. And Cabaret (1931 is close enough) is built to pull audiences slowly from a dream to a nightmare, but too often productions can’t pull off the joy and the dread at the same time. Maybe I’m just allergic to flappers.

Which is why I’m so surprised that Chicago succeeds to entertain my Jazz-Age-jaundiced eyes. This frothy play works, I think, because it slyly tells the story of the 20’s through the losers who happily stumble into the decade’s rapids and never fully grasp the danger. The play, which takes flight at the Reagle Theatre despite a few stumbles, centers on a pair of quasi-celebrity murderers, Velma Kelly (Sara Gettelfinger), a vaudeville performer on the wrong side of her career, and Roxie Hart (Angie Schworer), a never-was who couldn’t catch a cold in show business. Both have murdered lovers, and both must work the press and public sentiment to avoid the hangman’s noose. They’re aided by a grandstanding lawyer, Billy Flynn (Rick Pessagno), who seems to embody fickle fame. The script seduces us with the spectacle of song, dance and flesh, and we bask in the titillation as if we’re awaiting the verdict of the Jodi Arias trial. Just underneath the glitz, however, is a haunting portrayal of how justice dies in celebrity culture, especially for women.

The Reagle production of Chicago is wobbly. Gettelfinger seems to barely grasp the choreography and the script, and she plays it too safe with her character. This upsets the essential rivalry that must be kindled between Velma and Roxie. Also, technical issues abound. Most glaringly, director Gerry McIntyre and scenic designer Jiyoung Han should have sat in the corners of the theater to make sure all the action was visible for the audience.

But in the end the bubbliness of this production rises to the top. McIntyre keeps the action pulsating with energy, aided greatly by the script’s writers, Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse and John Kander, who channel Elmore Leonard’s advice to skip the boring parts. Their efforts combine to give the space for Schworer to take control, creating a Roxie that captivates the audience and shows murderous cunning and painful naiveté every second she owns the stage. Pessagno is her equal as Billy Flynn, as he shapes a character that always has a plan but never knows it until the last second. Their spontaneous bickering illuminates how Americans were making society up as they went along in this new gilded age, and having sinful fun doing it. The creativity on stage sweeps this play along, and we ignore disaster to bob and weave in the rapids for a few hours of agonizing foreplay that may lead nowhere, but still makes us smile.

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