The idea that American Society is essentially “show biz” writ large will hardly shock anyone. All you have to do is channel-surf for a few minutes a day, and you’ll see the most spectacular charlatanism played out before your eyes in politics, commerce, and yes, even our hallowed justice system. And yet, as American writers from Mark Twain to Don DeLillo have continually pointed out: moral outrage, however justified, is both tedious and unhealthy. Why not just be entertained?
Flat Rock Playhouse’s current offering, a revival of the original (1975) Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville, embraces this “it’s-all-fun-and-games” ethos magnificently. In keeping with the current trend at the Playhouse, under (still relatively new) Producing Artistic Director Vincent Marini, the show is a lavish spectacle, with production values comparable to those of Broadway. No expense seems to have been spared on sets, costumes, or talent. It’s great entertainment, and if the theme lacks bite, well, that’s the uneasy bargain struck by a show about how everything is just a show.
The play is set in Prohibition-Era Chicago, which in certain respects appears little different from that city at any other time. In any event, a young married woman of dubious character, Roxie Hart (Erica Sweany), has murdered her lover, and now sits in prison awaiting trial. Her truly pathetic dupe of a husband, Amos (William Thomas Evans), has begged and borrowed enough to get Roxie the best trial lawyer in town, one Billy Flynn (Michael Marotta), who specializes in representing attractive young murderesses, and who has never lost a case. It turns out that, while Roxie certainly would prefer to save her delicious skin, what she really wants is fame. But as luck (or the logic of Vaudeville) would have it, she can’t have both.
Audiences may be more familiar with Chicago in the form of its 1996 Broadway revival, which is supposedly still running, or of the 2002 film based on it and starring Renée Zellweger. But Flat Rock has gone back to the original version, which is Vaudevillian in all the right ways: raunchy, arch, and at times quite ridiculous. Director/Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has also sought inspiration in the original Bob Fosse choreography, and where the acting is merely good, the dancing is fantastic. Nor can one find fault with the singing, though some individual performances are less impressive than others. But the John Kander score, performed by an excellent ensemble of musicians under George Wilkins’s subtle and precise direction, keeps the show rolling along from start to finish.
Overall, the cast works well together and has tremendous depth: the hardworking ensemble is versatile and gifted, and they bring clarity to even the most minor roles. Among the main players, there are certainly some stand-outs: Gwendolyn Jones is both wise and delightfully crude as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton, the warden of the women’s prison, and D. Micciche gives one of the most bizarre turns you’re likely to see at Flat Rock, playing Mary Sunshine, a character whose function in the story is as ambiguous as her gender.
Most impressive of all, however, is Erin Maguire in the role of Velma Kelly, an older woman whom Roxie meets in prison, and who has already had a career of sorts on the Vaudeville stage. Her showcase number, “When Velma Takes the Stand,” is certainly one of the high points of the show. Maguire is not only a fine dancer and singer, as well as a capable actress, but she exudes a complex charm, both vulnerable and tough, that totally captivates the audience. That is, until she appears on stage with Erica Sweany (who plays the lead), a taller but, alas, much less appealing presence. Then Maguire seems to “disappear” in a way that almost makes me wonder if she has been directed to back off. In any event, there is virtually no stage chemistry between the two women, a fact that becomes painfully obvious in the final number, a Vaudeville duet between the now free but unfamous Roxie and Velma. After an Act 2 that already meanders and at times even appears to lose its sense of direction entirely, this is an unfortunate way to close the show.
Not that the audience’s enjoyment of the spectacle is much diminished. But if you go, be forewarned: The evening begins with a rather sentimental promotional video about the Playhouse (set to the theme from Gone With the Wind, no less) that ends right where one fears it will: with a call to raise $600,000 for the theatre over the next year. But at least here you can see where your money goes. Pity the actors, though, who are made to hold out their makeup-besmirched hats as the audience exits the house.
Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play Chicago, by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Director and Choregrapher: Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Music Director: George Wilkins. Stage Manager: Connie Silver. Scenic Design: Dennis Maulden. Costume Design: Janine Marie McCabe. Lighting Design: Paul Toben. Featuring: J. David Anderson, Kelli Joelle Bartlett, Ann Cooley, Desireé Davar, Aleka Emerson, William Thomas Evans, Sarah Marie Hicks, Michael D. Jablonski, Gwendolyn Jones, Erin Maguire, Michael Marotta, D. Micciche, Gregory Pember, Cid Roberts, Rod Roberts, Lauren Rogers, Erica Sweany, Minami Yusui. Presented by Flat Rock Playhouse, 2661 Greenville Highway, Flat Rock, NC. Performances May 18 – June 12, see online schedule for times. Tickets: $40. For ticket information, call 828.693.0713, or visit www.flatrockplayhouse.org.