Given all the current news about Chicago’s violence, it’s an interesting time to revisit a musical about that city in the 1920s, when killings were plentiful and generated feeding frenzies in the press.
The beauty, so to speak, of “Chicago” — the 1975 jazz-fueled show by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse — has always been that you can set brutal reality aside and laugh your way through a wickedly cynical tale about celebrity criminals and a voracious media.
ArtsCentric offers what they say is the first all-African-American production of the musical. The switch gives extra bite to some acerbic moments, extra spice to some of the comedy.
And the courtroom scene, when lover-murdering, publicity-craving Roxie Hart (Ashley Johnson-Moore) is defended by slick lawyer Billy Flynn (CJ Faulk), becomes an all-out, roof-raising church service.
Johnson-Moore captures the saucy-vulnerable mix of Roxie and produces sizzling vocalism. She is matched at every turn by Jessica Bennett as the jealous, equally murderous Velma Kelly, darling of the press until Roxie landed in jail.
Faulk can be a bit studied, but lets loose stylishly in the “Razzle Dazzle” number. Pamela Ward adds a jolt as the conniving, prodigiously bosomed prison matron.
BJ Daniels, wearing drag and wielding a fan with droll aplomb, blossoms in the role of sympathetic reporter Mary Sunshine. And as Roxie’s naive husband, Sylvern Jr. does a nice job singing the bittersweet “Mr. Cellophane.”
The rest of the large cast is not uniformly strong in acting skills, but director Kevin S. McAllister gets everyone jumping into the fray with snap. Shalyce N. Hemby’s choreography adds to that energy, though the cozy stage at Motor House can make things look pretty crowded.
That stage, designed with subtle flair by Ryan Haase, also holds a mostly solid band led by Cedric D. Lyles.
And then there’s the production’s sultry look (McAllister devised the costumes), suggesting a great, late-night party at Victoria's Secret, .