Previously I hadn’t really caught the Chicago bug. I didn’t see the play or the movie even though I knew they were very well acclaimed and had both garnered many top awards. I had seen clips of both, but somehow it didn’t totally interest me.
Our main theater reviewer at Entertainment Central, Mike Vargo, was going to be out-of-town for much of its local run as part of the CLO’s musical theater series. He suggested to me that I review it. The more I looked into it, the more I liked the idea of going. With an interesting story line, great music, Bob Fosse choreography, and John O’Hurley playing fast talking lawyer Billy Flynn, what’s not to like. I attended on opening night.
O’Hurley has created a strong body of work, including “Seinfeld’s” J. Peterman character (after Seinfeld ended he became an investor in the actual J. Peterman Co.), as former host of “Family Feud,” and as the second place finisher on the inaugural season of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” Additionally, he has many other theater, film and TV credits to his name. O’Hurley is an extremely charismatic, class act who is always willing to have a little fun.
A Little Backstory
There were two sensational murder trials back to back in 1924 prohibition-era Chicago. Each involving a woman cabaret singer as the accused. One was married and killed her lover as he was about to walk out on her—Roxie Hart in the play. The other, portrayed as Velma Kelly, killed her lover after discovering he was not single as he said, but actually married and had a child. One of the reporters covering the trial was Maurine Dallas Watkins, working for the Chicago Tribune. She found the trials a farcical mix of corruption, celebrity, and media. After the trials she wrote the play “Chicago” with all of those themes hilariously portrayed. The play had a respectable run after debuting in late 1926.
Fosse tried to get the rights for years from Watkins, who resisted. After her death, Fosse acquired them from her estate. Adapted from the original play, Chicago now had music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Ebb and Fosse. The revival of Chicago started its run in 1975 and was revived again in 1996. It has been produced around the world. Chicago is mainly produced in a cabaret setting and style.
An Original CLO Production of Chicago
The set for the play was very simple, a large golden rectangle framed the entire stage, as if you were looking through a very large picture frame at the stage. From mid stage back was a large tilted-up rectangular box that contained the onstage band. At stage left and right wooden chairs lined the perimeter. Sometimes, if they weren’t performing, the dancers would sit on them.
The story arc follows Roxy Hart, played wonderfully by Dylis Croman, through the murder of her lover, arrest, jailing, trial, and post trial. I haven’t seen other actresses play the role of Roxie, but it’s hard to imagine one better than Croman. She also played Hart in the Broadway production. Her portrayal is as a very cunning woman who seems almost childlike at times. Her voice and manner of speaking is somewhat humorous, think of a cross between Melanie Griffith and Sarah Palin.
Several memorable Croman scenes were “We Both Reached for the Gun” where she plays a human ventriloquist dummy on the lap of, and mouthed by, her lawyer Billy Flynn while speaking to the media. O’Hurley does a great job in the scene as well. Another is “Roxie” where she’s singing about when she gets out of jail she’s going to become a famous celebrity. Croman is in a most amazing song and dance number “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag” at the end with her celebrity murderess rival Velma (Terra C. MacLeod). The colorful, sparkly curtain they danced in front of was almost as amazing as a technicolor dreamcoat. McLeod also excelled in that number and others including “I Can’t do it Alone” and “When Velma Takes the Stand.”
O’Hurley was magnificent as Billy Flynn, playing him with good animation, yet not going over the top with the character. He showed off his vocal talents on “All I Care About” and “Razzle Dazzle.”
Jacob Keith Watson who played Hart’s husband Amos (and who Flynn keeps calling Andy), was good as the hapless husband willing to over look almost all of Roxie’s transgressions because of his love for her. He was in top form while singing “Mr. Cellophane,” about how he feels invisible to others. Matron “Mama” Morton was superbly played by Roz Ryan. Morton looked out for the murderesses in her unit only after looking out for herself first. Reporter Mary Sunshine was portrayed “surprisingly” well by D. Ratell.
The dance unit was totally in sync with one another as a tight, sexy unit. Not only where their feet making intricate moves, but their hands were as well. Additionally, the noted jazz hands could be seen in several dance numbers in the show. MacLeod and company performed the classic song “All That Jazz” in a delightful manner. Another fun scene is when Velma and the other murdresses recount their crimes in “Cell Block Tango.” The chorus of “He Had it Coming” ratcheted up the humor and impact.
The play had a very fast pace to it, moving quickly and flawlessly from one scene to the next. With a minimal stage set it was easier to keep up a rapid pace. There was a thread of humor running through almost every scene of the show in many funny lines and songs. Most of which brought raucous laughter from the crowd. One especially funny line was when Roxie’s on the stand and she’s trying to use the defense that Flynn has drummed into her, but confuses the truth with the lie. The prosecutor asks why didn’t you scream when your lover was attacking you, she replied “I didn’t want to wake the neighbors.”
The near sell out audience had a good time and rewarded the actors with strong applause after each scene. At the end of the show the cast received a long standing ovation.
At the Stage Door
As the play let out I was walking back to my car past the Benedum Center stage door. I saw people waiting for the cast to come out. I decided to wait and see if I could meet John O’Hurley. Rob Bowman, who works as a national theatrical music conductor and conducted the onstage band here, and local guitarist Ken Karsh came out soon after I stopped. When I asked, they both commented that most of the band members were local. I was proud of that because we have great musicians in this city, plus the band was fantastic. They were so precisely synchronized to corresponding dance moves and acting sound cues. I also spoke with Nicole Benoit (Go-to-Hell-Kitty and member of the dance ensemble) who said “Chicago has toured all over the world and that it was a good audience here in Pittsburgh.” Benoit was one of the standouts on a very talented dance unit.
I saw a tall man with a head of regal-looking white hair emerge from the inner door of the building and knew that I would soon have an opportunity to meet O’Hurley. As he exited onto to the street, the people who were waiting to see him edged closer. He graciously spoke with fans and signed autographs for children and adults alike (as did the rest of the cast). When it was my turn I shook his hand and said that I was a fan of his work and it was very nice to meet him. I also mentioned that sometimes when you hear how great something is for awhile—like Chicago—it fails to measure up when you finally see it, but that Chicago had exceeded my expectations. I also mentioned that I thought his performance was fantastic and he was an impressive singer. He kindly thanked me and said “I’m really enjoying touring with the show and the cast.”
O’Hurley is fortunate to have been part of the Seinfeld cast and also now with Chicago. Both shows have many elements that blended well together to create a magical experience. Maybe we are the lucky ones to have enjoyed O’Hurley’s performances over the years. The elements of Chicago—acting, singing, dancing, and music—all could stand strongly on their own, but when combined together they make a truly spectacular play. My trip to Chicago was a great time.
Photos courtesy of Matt Polk and Pittsburgh CLO.
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central Pittsburgh and loves great entertainment.