‘Chicago’ shines, puts a modern spin on a timeless classic
“Razzle dazzle ‘em, give ‘em a show that’s so splendiferous, row after row will grow vociferous!” The razzle dazzle of Prohibition-era Chicago, referenced in the show’s lyrics, came to life at the Hopkins Center on Friday, where the theater department presented its production of “Chicago,” the award-winning musical that premiered in 1975.
As the line from the musical suggests, Dartmouth’s version of the acclaimed show was a glitzy and impressive affair with careful attention paid to production design, lighting, choreography, costume and acting. From the live orchestra to the use of projectors to illuminate the large white block letters set up on stage to spell “Chicago” backwards, the meticulous detail veered from paying tribute to the original show’s satirical look at corruption in the criminal justice system and the idea of the celebrity criminal to subtle anachronisms that reference the show’s tagline: “Stop making stupid people famous.”
“Fame occurs for reasons as banal as ‘clicks’ and ‘likes,’” director Carol Dunne wrote in her “Note From the Director in the show’s program.
“We decided that our production would focus on the impermanence of fame and its trappings while reminding our audiences that this tale of the 1920s is even more applicable today,” she said.
On Broadway, “Chicago” is a flashy production that pays tribute to vaudeville theater, but it is the musical’s nod to today’s social media-centered world that makes this version exceptional. Portraits of celebrities including Justin Bieber, two members of the Rolling Stones and Paris Hilton line a wall at the section of the stage that serves as the office for Billy Flynn, played by Robert Leverett ’16, the silver-tongued lawyer who defends criminals by making them into celebrities. The musical is an extended barb at the way society forgives the rich and famous because of their wealth and fame; the publicity, not the crime, is what matters.
Billy Flynn is only a piece of this hilarious yet sobering portrayal of social corruption. Velma Kelly, played by Veronica Burt ’16, and Roxie Hart, played by Carina Conti ’16, are the two murderesses who scrabble for the publicity that will get them off of death row and into a peculiar kind of stardom. Having shot her lover, Roxie lands in jail after her hapless husband, Amos Hart, played by Owen O’Leary ’19, is unable to cover for her murder. The jail is run by Matron “Mama” Morton, played on alternating nights by Carene Mekertichyan ’16 and Zahra Ruffin ’17, who facilitates Roxie’s dealing with Billy — for a price. Roxie adapts to her manufactured stardom quickly, and Velma, who had been the reigning celebrity criminal until Roxie’s appearance, seethes as she sees her position usurped. The story unfolds as Roxie deflects potential threats to her fame as her court date looms, and Velma plots to win back her former glory, all while the irony of their predicament hangs over the audience.
“Chicago” is a musical classic, holding a record as the longest-running American musical as well as being adopted into a critically acclaimed film. Yet the actors hold their own, turning in performances that allow the audience to get swept up in the manic vibe of the musical. Burt plays her role as Velma Kelly with a crackling energy; there’s a confidence that would be close to regality if not for her blatant crudeness, captured in “Class,” a marvelously ironic duet with Mama, lamenting the lack of class in 1920s Chicago. Perhaps it is because of this confidence that Velma’s desperation to reclaim her throne as criminal queen is vivid both in its hilarity and frustration. Conti as Roxie Hart is a credible threat to Burt’s Velma; where Velma is dark and charismatic, Roxie is sweet and conniving. Conti expertly blurs the line between despicability and sympathy. Her Roxie is charming and girlish, save for the sheer size of her ambition and her capacity for murder.
In between their two characters, Leverett as Billy Flynn plays his role with gusto. Apart from nailing crescendos in a way Richard Gere in the 2002 film version of “Chicago” never could, Leverett invites not only Roxie, but the audience, to trust him in his ability to turn the courthouse into a showroom. He is a character of questionable morality who could be easily played as a snake, but Leverett makes the audience silently root for his success. His performance is akin to a magician performing a trick that the audience very well knows is fake — yet we still hope to be amazed.
If Velma, Roxie and Billy provide the rapturous entertainment that captures the audience’s attention, it’s O’Leary as Amos Hart who captures the audience’s heart. Amos is a hapless character who seems barely capable of standing out in a grimy garage, where he works as mechanic, let alone the flamboyant stage of “Chicago.” O’Leary embraces the utter pathetic nature of his character; his long-faced expression and perpetually furrowed brows contribute to the heart-tugging impact of his rendition of “Mr. Cellophane.”
Mekertichyan, who played Mama on Friday night, is delightful, capturing an elegance that seems simultaneously maternal and friendly as well as calculating and vicious. Mekertichyan is very good at making Mama seem to care; she looks appropriately sympathetic, concerned and even upset when her “children” of Murderess Row come under attack. But there is a sinister element underneath her warm mother hen persona, and Merkertichyan portrays the sense of satisfaction that Mama feels while participating in her illegal favor exchange with the convicted women under her watch.
Paulina Calcaterra ’19, who attended the performance over the weekend, said that she thought the show had been really well-rehearsed and admired the performer’s energy.
“The cast had really good chemistry and did the Broadway show and the movie justice while making the show their own,” Calcaterra said. “I was also really impressed by the freshman actors.”Clara Chin ’19, another attendee, said that she thought the performance was dynamic and that the cast’s singing ability carried the show.
“I like that there was a lot of involvement with the audience, the orchestra and the performers,” Chin said. “It ended up creating a nice synergy.”
Monik Walters ’19, who played one of the singers in the show’s “Cell Block Tango” number, said that she considered the cast to be a huge family. She said that the professionalism of the production exceeded her experience in high school productions, and that this professionalism was integral to the show’s success.
“This has been really exciting and I think being on stage is almost like revealing another part of yourself,” Walters said. “A lot of my friends might hear me talking about rehearsal but they won’t be able to see how much work I’ve put in until they see me on stage and see how much I love performing.”
Walters also said that the performance showcased the level of dedication and passion for the show by the cast and crew. The lighting, the set design and the backstage support had to come together to add to the magic of the entire show, she said.
“I’m happy that a lot of students were able to come to the performances [last weekend], and I hope that we’ll be able to keep that up,” Walters said. “I think the arts often end up being overlooked, so I’m glad I can contribute to something that could have someone reconsider how important the arts are.”
"Chicago" will be performed this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and this Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Moore Theater. Tickets are $5 for students and $10-$15 for the public.
Chin is a member of The Dartmouth opinion staff.