When the brightly colored stage curtain opened, to the smoldering, sexy strains of a smoky trumpet, my question was answered: with a gigantic 1920's jazz club set, filled with smoldering, sexy people.
By now, thanks to various productions of this musical (and the Rob Marshall movie version), most everyone knows the story of flappers Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, two Chicago showgirls known more for their jealousies rages than for their talent. Each of them ends up in the Cook County Jail, placing their hopes of parole in the hands of renowned shady lawyer Billy Flynn, who, while proclaiming he's in the game for love, clearly knows his wit and charm is worth a cool, Prohibition-Era $5000.
Muny favorite (and Kevin Kline award-winner for last year's West Side Story) Natascia Diaz is back, handling the role of Queen Bee Velma Kelly, just as you expected she would: with breath-taking presence and sophistication, tons of weary charm, immaculate comic timing and heaps of studied sexuality. Whether melting our M & M's with a fiery "All That Jazz", hoofing it like a madwoman in I Can't Do It Alone" or mugging shamelessly through "I Know A Girl", she proves again and again that she (and Velma) is a winner, and we understand why both she and her character are stars.
Right on her heels, Patti Murin as the scheming Roxie Hart proves that she has remarkable range. When last seen on The Muny stage, she was sweet, charming Ariel in last year's The Little Mermaid. As Roxie, Murin cannot be more different. Her Roxie is at turns sweet and manipulative, waif and bombshell, coy and crass. She shows that famous Roxie Hart charm in such numbers as the Sophie Tucker-inspired "Roxie" and "Funny Honey". Both she and Diaz shine in the finale "Hot Honey Rag" - always one of the highlights of any production of Chicago.
The big surprise is Justin Guarini (and unless you've been hiding under a rock, you know who he is) as Billy Flynn - the fast-talking shyster lawyer. Although I had a little trouble with his slightly elevated speech patterns (after all, this is 1920's Chicago), I was entirely won over by his slimy charm, smart comic chops, and a singing voice that, predictably, suits Billy Flynn to a T. He's no slouch in the dance department either, and his ventriloquist act with Roxie, and the P.T. Barnum charm of "Razzle Dazzle" provide to highlights of the show.
Hometowner Dean Christopher as Roxie's hapless hubby Amos, is perfect and abashedly dim. His signature tune "Mr. Cellophane" is appropriately funny, sweet and a little sad. Jackie Hoffman had huge shoes to fill as prison matron Mama Morton (played to great acclaim by Queen Latifah in the film). However, she filled them JUST as ably, and her wisecracking persona was an even more perfect fit to the part. Patti Cohenour gave a very Hedda Hopper-type vibe to the reporter Mary Sunshine, and sang as sunnily as her name. I personally, however, miss the days when Mary Sunshine was cast as a man, singing impossible coloratura in falsetto and drag. And as The Merry Murderesses of the Cook County Jail, Anna Aimee White, Jennifer Foote, Samantha Kuhl, Beth Nicely and Abby O'Brien all give mini-star turns in The Cell Block Tango.
Director/Choreographer Denis Jones does a superb job of transferring “Chicago” to the huge Muny stage, always keeping this bright and bubbly, while not glossing over the very human feelings of the characters. Special kudos for not stealing any of the movie choreography, and having a vision of the show, grounded in Fosse, but decidedly all his own. His choreography on "We Both Reached for the Gun", "Razzle Dazzle" and "The Hot Honey Rag" are all worth the price of admission.
Chicago continues at the Muny until July 1st. For tickets or more information, visit www.muny.org.