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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Darkened Theater

Chicago’s cynical stagecraft thrives in front of a live audience.



I have this picture in my head of a hypothetical conversation between composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb in 1967, after Cabaret became a Broadway hit. “Well,” one of them might have said, “we’ve just created a toe-tapping crowd-pleaser out of the rise of Nazi Germany. Where can we go from here in terms of creating dark, politically cynical theater? The Warren Commission Report: The Musical?nn

It would be nearly another decade before they’d eventually produce Chicago in collaboration with director Bob Fosse, and in between, their work included such perfectly pleasant stuff as Zorba. But the Kander/Ebb team is best known for two of the prickliest successes in the history of the Great White Way. And when it comes to Chicago, they were also frighteningly forward-looking: It’s easy for those most familiar with the 2002 film version to forget that the musical debuted in 1975, long before O.J., Amy Fisher and the Menendez brothers made celebrity criminality part of the cultural language.


It would also be easy for fans of the Oscar-winning film adaptation to forget that there’s a quintessential theatricality to Chicago'just as there is in Cabaret'that adds to the show’s impact. Pioneer Theatre Company plays splendidly on that sensibility, crafting a production that seduces with razzle-dazzle even as it criticizes those easily distracted from substance by style.


The basic plot is probably easier to remember: In 1920s Chicago, a murder grabs the headlines. Roxie Hart (Kelly Sullivan) has shot her lover (Mathias Anderson), and'after unsuccessfully attempting to make her sad-sack cuckold husband Amos (Jim Corti) the fall guy'turns to successful defense attorney Billy Flynn (Terence Goodman) to get her off. None too pleased by this development is accused murderer Velma Kelly (Erin Crouch), who not only sees Flynn getting distracted from her case, but worries that Roxie’s case will thwart her own attempt to gain fame from her trial.


PTC turns to some of its behind-the-scenes stalwarts to make the production go, and the choices all pay off. Artistic director Charles Morey gives his deft comic touch to choices like placing one performer in alternating hats in every one of the jury seats, while choreographer Patti D’Beck gives the dance numbers an explosive charge. Set designer George Maxwell creates a grand raised platform for the band but doesn’t attempt to overwhelm the show with the grandeur and glitz; ditto for Susan Branch’s slick costumes. It’s a terrifically mounted piece of work.


Of course, a lot of the work is done for them. If it’s about anything, Chicago is a show about staging every minute of one’s existence for the public eye. Band leader Mearle Marsh introduces scenes with a wry smile, as though life itself had a narrator. Characters call for their exit music or for a follow spot, while Billy turns Roxie into a ventriloquist dummy mouthing his lines. And it’s telling that the plaintive number sung by Amos, “Mr. Cellophane,” is a lament primarily about being deemed too insignificant to warrant attention. Nothing matters more than fame, no matter how ignominiously it’s achieved.


It’s true that a production like Chicago draws many audience members because they’re already familiar enough with the material to know that it’s an all-killer/no-filler collection of show stoppers. And with a solid cast'headlined by a sensational Kelly Sullivan, alternately coquettish and manipulative as Roxie'they’re gonna get their money’s worth. But it’s hard to ignore the sense that viewers are somehow being implicated as they’re enjoying the same “razzle dazzle” one of the show’s best songs sardonically celebrates. Kander and Ebb used theatricality for a prescient swipe at an America too consumed with an entertaining story to bother with the truth. They delivered both in Chicago, a deliciously dark affirmation that all the world really has become a stage.


Pioneer Theatre Company
300 S. 1400 East
Through Oct. 14