Murder, We Hope: “Chicago”

Heather Parcells (Roxie) and Bahiyah Hibah (Velma). Photo © Paul Lyden

Heather Parcells (Roxie) and Bahiyah Hibah (Velma). Photo © Paul Lyden

Presented by North Shore Music Theatre
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins
Directed and choreographed by Nick Kenkal

Beverly, MA
September 23rd – October 5th, 2014
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Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Beverly, MA) At one point after a showstopping number during the North Shore Music Theatre’s production of Chicago, actor Sean McDermott (Billy Flynn) was clearly out of breath. He had a lot of company in the audience, as this production succeeds in leaving an audience breathless.

There’s a reason why the musical Chicago is a hit. It’s a high-energy show that shows plenty of skin, and writers John Kander and Fred Ebb provide a solid plot and delicious tunes to make sure there’s never a dull moment on stage. The plot, two murderesses trying to play the public to get a not-guilty verdict, fame, and fortune, is full of the sex and violence that has kept the show Law and Order on for decades. But it takes a special production to tease out the best parts of Kander and Ebb’s work, and director/choreographer Nick Kenkal pulls all the right notes out of this talented cast to make this a Chicago to remember.

We are drawn in as we follow Roxie Hart (Heather Parcells), a married woman who kills her lover, through the three-ring circus of the judicial system in the roaring twenties. In prison, Hart gets to know the score of how to play the public from vaudeville actress-turned-murderer Velma Kelly (Bahiyah Hibah), corrupt warden “Mama” Morton (Liz McCartney), and Flynn. She becomes both a puppet and the ringmaster, working with and conniving against everyone in her life, from her sad-sack husband Amos Hart (Nick Kohn) to the eager hordes of reporters. Freedom becomes secondary to her pursuit of fame.

Parcells captivates as Hart, infusing the character with a comical giddiness that only partially obscures a brain as sharp as a steel trap. Hibah provides the perfect counterweight as Kelly, who uses powerful coolness and force of will to get what she wants. The tension between the two characters is tangible, as they both vie to be the murdering diva of the press, and their choice to take distinctly different roads helps draw out hidden feminist themes in a play that could easily devolve into a strip show in a lesser production. While I have seen several productions of Chicago, this is the only one where the production succeeds in creating a truly tragic character in Hunyak (Lauralyn McClelland), a recently-arrived immigrant and alleged murderer who doesn’t understand the U.S. game of justice.

Don’t worry, though. Tragedy never slows down this production’s energy for a minute. This is the rare play that succeeds in being both weighty and fluffy, like angel food cake with a file tucked inside.

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