I was a bit worried, I must admit, walking into the main Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival this summer. You see, I have seen Chicago, the 1975 American musical, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, so so many times since it was revived on Broadway back in 1996. That revival, a product of the New York City Center‘s magnificent Encores! series is as epic as one can imagine; a tremendous example of stripped-down bare-boned entertainment, a staple of the Encores! design esthetic. And what a success it was. Unlike the original production, the revival was praised to the roof by critics, winning numerous awards, including six Tonys. It is now the longest-running musical revival and the longest-running American musical in Broadway history (second only to the British import, Phantom of the Opera in terms of being crowned the longest-running show on Broadway). Chicago, the Broadway revival is etched most formidably in my brain thanks to the indescribable Bob Fosse choreography brought to heavenly light by the legendary Ann Reinking, with the phenomenal Bebe Neuwirth at her side. The two together dominated that stage, giving us two of the best murderous ladies to ever take on the center of Chicago, and it was hard to imagine all that Jazz being presented any other way. So the question, rightly or wrongly, that floated in my head was, “how was it going to compare?”
This visit to Stratford was also the first time back to the glorious main stage of the Stratford Festival, other than that tender and beautiful Celebration of Life for Martha Henry that I was lucky enough to attend last fall, who died just days after finishing her run in Stratford Festival’s 2021 production of Three Tall Women. That was one of the most lovely afternoons spent in Stratford. But this evening was going to be a different kind of celebration, and one I was hoping would enlighten and enthrall. I’ve never seen a fully staged production of Chicago, other than the movie, and this staging promised to be the one that might open up the show to something more than what that Encores! production so simply and beautifully presented back on Broadway. So my fingers were crossed and my hopes were high.
Lucky for us all, that Chicago ‘razzle dazzle‘ that I was holding my breath for did not disappoint. Beyond that somewhat silly flourish at the beginning, which was cute but unnecessary, the show really rose up from below with that strong entrance of one of its two female stars surging upwards and outwards with a show-stopping “All That Jazz.” All worries were set aside. Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore (Stratford’s The Rocky Horror Show), that number said it all about what was in store in this dynamically staged production of Chicago. It signaled a confident production that was born to be both innovative and exciting. It might not shatter Fosse’s iconic connection to the musical, but it does deliver the dazzling music and lyrics with unabashed ambition and style. Just like these two murderous locked-up ladies would have wanted.
Worthy of the space and company, Stratford’s production has found its way through, utilizing all that the big broad stage has to offer and more. It might just be one of the best entrances and beginnings that famed Festival Theatre stage has ever seen. It certainly made me sit up and take notice. Because there she was, the powerfully iconic Velma Kelly, a part usually played by Jennifer Rider-Shaw, but for the performance I attended was played by Bonnie Jordan (Stratford’s Billy Elliot), hitting the stage with precision and pizzazz. I must admit, it made me wish that I could hear all of Kander & Ebb‘s music through completely virgin ears all over again just so I could turn off my comparative brain and take it all in without knowing a thing or two about anything. It wasn’t all that difficult, I might add, as director/choreographer Feore has found a way of opening up the piece, filling the layered space wonderfully, giving us moments of absolute intimacy while also being ambitious with props and scenarios that open up the space, and for the most part, pay off big.
The choreography, I must say, is not as legendary as what Fosse did back in the day, but to expect that kind of revolution might have been a bridge too far. Feore delivers a wonderful slice of high entertainment and fun. She seems a bit too dependent on the big kicks but does find ways of dazzling us time and time again. The movements never find the nuances and intricate magic that Fosse so easily embroidered into the fabric of the show, but the pleasure of Feore’s work doesn’t disappoint, even when the choreography lacks the sly organicness that I was treated to on Broadway.
Chicago unpacks a complicated and cynical story of two ladies who are trying hard to pass off murder as entertainment, Vaudeville style. Roxie Hart, played by Chelsea Preston (Drayton’s Hairspray) is utterly captivating as the wannabe star who finds herself locked up in jail for murdering her lover Fred Casely, portrayed by the fantastic Chad McFadden (COC’s Siegfried). She tries to manipulate her husband, Amos Hart, played by the impossibly good Steve Ross (Grand’s A Christmas Story), to take the blame, but it doesn’t spin out the way she had hoped. Cue the deliciously good “Funny Honey” number, performed to perfection by the excellent Preston. In jail, Roxie, with the help of Matron Mama Morton, played by the brassy, beautifully voiced Sandra Caldwell (MCC’s Charm), enlists the fantastically entertaining lawyer Billy Flynn, portrayed perfectly by Dan Chameroy (Canadian Stage’s Into the Woods) who basically, through his three-ring circus, tap dance act, makes her a murderous star to contend with. Just ask the other murderous lady, Velma Kelly (Bonnie Jordan), the former Vaudeville star, who also is trying hard, desperately hard, to create fame and fortune from murder. The clamor for center stage attention is almost deafening, especially during the impeccably staged number, “Roxie.” Fabulous, is the only word that comes to mind, even if the one little thing that number needed was a bit more hip and sass to send it right over the moon.