Toby's Columbia presents a dazzling 'Chicago' in the round
Tale of cellblock celebrity is up close and well done
Debra Buonoccorsi, left is Velma and Carole Grahalm Lehan is Roxie. (Kirstine Christiansen / September 29, 2011)
The tale, well told in Toby's production, centers on 1920s-era chorus girl Roxie Hart, who shoots her lover and persuades her husband, Amos, to assume blame for the act until he discovers this "burglar" is no stranger but a frequent and familiar visitor. This inspires Amos to let Roxie go to jail.
When Roxie meets cellblock celebrity chanteuse Velma Kelly, who killed her husband and sister after finding them in bed together, she discovers that she too can become a criminal celebrity. She just needs the help of lawyer Billy Flynn.
With the aid of jail matron Mama Morton — who has already helped Velma — Roxie discovers she can have a vaudeville career based on the fame her crime brings with Flynn's expert help. Eventually Velma and Roxie learn that their fame is fleeting as new celebrity criminals replace them in the hearts of fickle fans.
Co-directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence Munsey create a lively, lighter version of this stage and film musical. Theater owner since 1975, Orenstein has directed most of Toby's productions, many of them nominees for the Helen Hayes local theater award. In "Chicago," we again find unmistakable evidence of skill in casting actors in star-making roles, along with the signature stamp of tight, polished productions.
Munsey contributes to the production's overall brilliance with dazzling costume design and a seamless, brisk pace. Munsey also plays a trio of roles while delivering some fancy footwork and many laughs.
From the bright opening ensemble piece of "All that Jazz" to the nostalgic "Nowadays" delivered by stars Roxie and Velma, every number is terrific. Whether nostalgic ballads or up-tempo favorites, Kander and Ebb's score is smartly interpreted by six skilled musicians led by Helen Hayes-award-winning conductor Christopher Youstra.
Helen Hayes-winning choreographer Ilona Kessell creates her usual fresh execution that demands athleticism and the ability to project an innate sensuality. I personally expected to find a hint of choreographer Bob Fosse, who is inextricably linked to "Chicago" and perhaps deserved a subtle nod.
Toby's is blessed with its own near-repertory group of actors that includes Jeffrey Shankle, who has graced several past productions — most recently in his winning Billy Crocker of "Anything Goes." He now returns to play another Billy, defining the manipulative lawyer Flynn, a role requiring strong acting, skilled dancing and Broadway pipes.
Shankle delivers with a light touch and irresistible charm. His rendition of Flynn's "All I Need Is Love" is a highlight of this show.
An exciting presence remembered for her performance as the mean Miss Hannigan in "Annie," Annapolis resident and reliable Toby's regular Tina Marie DeSimone says in her program bio that she is "excited to continue her stay at Toby's Columbia with a lot of the old gang."
Just off an outstanding performance in Toby's "Anything Goes," DeSimone now delivers another tale of a darker tone. As a resident of Murderers Row joining in the "Cell Block Tango" number, she recounts the slights of her polygamous lover, who was among the males "who had it coming."
Helen Hayes-winning actor David James contributes substantially to Toby's "Chicago," playing Roxie's trusting husband, Amos. The performance peaks with James' moving rendition of "Mr. Cellophane."
A notable cameo portrayal of pandering journalist Mary Sunshine is given by countertenor Chris Rudy in his "A Little Bit of Good" delivery.
Another strong performance in a supporting role is by actress and dancer Christen Svingos as the innocent Hungarian inmate Hunyak.
Jesaira Glover again brightens Toby's stage, here in the role of Cook County Jail matron Mama Morton, delivering a strong "When You're Good to Mama," which earned its prolonged applause, and the dark humor of "Class" sung with Debra Buonaccorsi's Velma.
The two undisputed stars of this production are Buonaccorsi, a fabulous dancer and convincing actress as Velma — who also sings a beguiling "All that Jazz" and "Cell Block Tango" — and Carole Graham Lehan as Roxie. Lehan is a strong dancer and one of the best singers in the cast, as she proves in "Roxie" and in the nostalgic tune "Nowadays," a duet with Buonaccorsi to close the show.
This 1996 Tony-awarded musical, which won the 2003 Oscar for best film, may well become another Helen Hayes nominee for Toby's Columbia Dinner Theatre, where it will continue playing through Nov. 6.
The performance and a buffet dinner costs $48 to $53. Call 410-730-8311 or 1-800-88TOBYS to order tickets.