John Kander and Fred Ebb have a penchant for humor based on the deterioration of character and morality. Otherwise well-meaning folks gradually complied with Nazi occupation in Cabaret and women who kill unfaithful husbands become the hot celebrity commodity in Chicago. Like Cabaret, Chicago reflects certain cultural truths and captures the allure of transgression almost effectively as an opium den. Roxie Hart murders a paramour before he can leave her, and immediately Velma Kelly launches into “All That Jazz” a celebration of booze, broads and brawling. The ensemble boys and girls, dressed in provocative black, are not at all shy about teasing, touching, caressing and striking tawdry poses for our delectation. Kander and Ebb have a knack for striking a balance between coy naughtiness (ugh!) and full-on degeneracy.
Of course, the sting and punch of any effective satire comes from the touchstones it establishes with the actual, recognizable world. Perhaps real life is an overrated paradigm, but it doesn’t hurt to see the parallels between Velma and Roxie, and say, Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson. Whether or not Simpson and Jackson were innocent, public sympathy helped them enormously. The difference in Chicago being, that Roxie and Velma are popular because of their crimes, not in spite of. You can’t accuse Kander and Ebb of stacking the deck. Roxie’s cuckolded husband may be a schlub, and justice an abstraction eclipsed by corruption and arbitrary fate, but nobody comes off well in this grim immorality tale.
The splendid sleight of hand that Fred Ebb and John Kander achieve (despite pervasive, dark undercurrents) is composing a genuinely entertaining, sardonic, witty piece of theatre that rewards our attention with audacious spectacle and sharp comedy. The musical numbers are imaginative, intelligent, grown-up and snappy. Director B.J. Cleveland has met the considerable challenges of the script with confidence, extravagance, and flawless timing. In every stage production I have been privileged to critique, Mr. Cleveland has overwhelmed me with his style, precision and peerless eclat, whether he was performing or orchestrating a demanding show. His seasoned experience and brimming pleasure is manifest in every gesture, cue, inflection, aside and grimace. He can tickle you senseless or bring implacable grief without missing a beat. Don’t miss this remarkable theatrical triumph. Succumb to the siren song of Chicago.
MainStage Irving – Las Colinas presents Chicago, playing November 4th-19th, 2016. Irving Arts Center (Dupree Theatre) 3333 N MacArthur Blvd, Irving, TX 75062. (972) 594-6104. www.irvingtheatre.org