Ever since it opened on Broadway in 1975, "Chicago, the Musical" has brought the Windy City's scandalous ways to a new generation of theater-goers. Now through early November, we can do a little more time on the women's block of the Cook County jail with the likes of Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly and other jazz-era murderesses doing the "Cell Block Tango" right here at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.
Forget for a moment the immorality of murder or whether you buy the ladies' excuses that their unfaithful hubbies and boyfriends "had it coming." Here it's not the act of murder that matters but the act that it inspires. These killers not only own up to their crimes, they seem to delight in the attention of rehashing them.
And what juicy tales they are!
Like the 1926 play by former reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about some actual crimes and criminals she covered, the musical version is set in Prohibition-era Chicago. These are the carefree Charleston years, where you might end up with a mob guy drinking illegal gin from a flask hidden in a bra.
Yet even with the memorable vaudeville-style tunes by Fred Ebb and John Kander — and I promise you that you will leave the dinner theater humming one — this show will always belong to its original director-choreographer, Bob Fosse. Fosse's ghost has never appeared livelier than at Toby's Dinner Theatre, where returning choreographer Illona Kessell puts her own spin on his most stylish dances.
Great to see Kessell back at work locally. We predict the Helen Hayes judges, who have recognized her achievements nearly a dozen times in the past, will also have something to say about her latest display of talent.
Somebody ought to bottle the wit and pluck of lead character Roxie Hart, a chorus hoofer who kills her lover on impulse and then learns it may have been her best career move. She is played with great gusto here by Carol Graham Lehan,
If Lehan's energetic Roxie doesn't single handedly end the current string of boring musicals making the rounds, at least she will provide inspiration to all "women of a certain age" with her amazing blast of talent. Lehan's Roxie emotes, sings and dances up a storm as if holding back were the only real crime. And she has enough left over to pull off a cartwheel in the show's finale!
Roxie's showbiz partner-in-crime, Velma Kelly is played by Debra Buonaccorsi, whose talents are equally red-hot, and certainly not in any need of help from the red negligee provided for the jail birds in one of the fantasy numbers.
Gifted songbird Jesaira Glover returns to the Toby's stage as Matron "Mama" Morton, who runs the cellblock and can get a girl anything she wants for a little cash under the table. Glover's saucy rendition of "When You're Good to Mama" is one of the show's highlights.
Also making a welcome return in "Chicago" is Jeffrey Shankle, who has his best Toby's role to date as the slick, in-it-only-for-the-money lawyer, Billy Flynn. He goes into overdrive to keep his new death row clients from the gallows, bringing to mind the old cynical truism about the world being a con game and show business being the "biggest scam of all."
Rounding out the dynamite cast of leads is David James as Amos, Roxie's oblivious husband who cheerfully agrees to take the blame for the murder because nobody ever notices him. And then claims paternity for a child that doesn't exist because nobody ever notices him. The veteran performer and twice-winner of a Hayes Award, James shines in his solo rendition of "Mr. Cellophane," leaving little doubt that the Hayes judges will notice him when nomination time rolls around.
The real stars in this "Chicago," however, are the dancers, especially the half-dozen guys who back up Roxie in her specialty numbers. In all the shows I've seen at Toby's, whether here in Columbia or in Baltimore, the dancers always rank high among the best anywhere.
They are spotlighted by the expert staging in this production, co-directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, and, of course, by the expert lighting design by Lynn Joslin and operated on opening night by Coleen M. Foley.
Christopher Youstra's live musical direction keeps the show on key and moving along at a brisk pace. There were some glitches in the sound system the night I attended, muffling some of the talented singing voices.
Overall, special kudos must go to Larry Munsey, whose singing and narration in the role of the MC came through loud and clear, keeping everyone in the loop for the delicious satirical delights of "Chicago."
"Chicago, the Musical" runs at Toby's — the Dinner Theatre of Columbia through Nov. 6. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays with selected additional performances Tuesday and Wednesday evenings and Thursday matinees. Reservations are required. For reservations and information call 410-730-8311 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.