Musical 'Chicago' a bizarre, but talent-laden production


Neither rain, nor winds, nor storms of night have kept the Annapolis Summer Garden Theater's cast of "Chicago" from its appointed rounds.

Despite the adverse weather conditions that have disrupted the production in the early weeks of its run, "Chicago" has coalesced into a sparkling, talent-laden affair featuring one of the most able casts that's been assembled around here in some time.

Billed as "a musical vaudeville," "Chicago" is -- to put it mildly -- a bizarre show. It is based on an actual 1924 Chicago murder in which a lying dame invented an ever-increasing number of excuses for killing her boyfriend -- excuses that were sensationalized by the press and swallowed hook, line and sinker by a jury all too willing to buy into the nonsense.

To the creators of "Chicago," this trial -- and others like it -- becomes a metaphor for the moral decay eating away at the Windy City back in the Roaring '20s.

Great theater, "Chicago" is not. It is a remarkably unintegrated show. Scenes end in the middle of nowhere. Transitions? What are they?

It is indeed musical vaudeville: song after dance after song and dance. And at no time does anything resembling a sympathetic character break out.

OK, so "Chicago" isn't "My Fair Lady." But it is a zany, brash, song-and-dance vehicle that requires a lot of high-stepping, serious character singing and immense comedic skills to be brought off effectively. And this cast does it all in style.

ASGT doesn't play for subtlety. The production numbers crackle with pizazz. The girls are leggy and sexy. Sexual innuendoes of every conceivable drift fly every which way.

Costuming is colorful and crazy. In the final courtroom scene, the judge (appropriately) wears a clown suit and face, while the bailiff is clad in a Tarzan suit and green sunglasses. One of the principals is even played in drag.

But not for one moment do these decadent hi-jinks obscure the fact that this is one terrific cast.

As Roxie Hart, the two-timing blond bombshell who will say anything to get off the hook for bumping off her boyfriend, Nori Morton is as funny as she is beautiful, which means a lot of laughs, let me tell you.

From her opening scene, when she registers her disgust at breaking a nail during the murder, to her indignation at having been upstaged at her own trial, Morton is a riot.

Perhaps her funniest moments occur in her song, "Funny Honey," a love song to her "nebbishy" husband, Amos.

She begins by professing her love for her sap of a spouse, but as he begins to wise up and refute her alibi, she gets more angry, all the while singing beautifully. She is wonderful.

If there is a better onstage schlepper in Central Maryland than Morey Norkin, I have yet to see him work. His Amos is the platonic form of "schlemiel." He is indeed a "Mr. Cellophane" as his song suggests. Putty in the hands of Roxie and her shifty shyster, Amos can't even get the ASGT crew to play his exit music when he asks for it at the end of the show. Talk about easy to ignore!

Diana Wolf, who does for onstage bitchiness what Norkin does for nerd-dom, is just terrific as Velma Kelly. Velma -- a would-be Page One murderess whose lawyer, good press and on-the-stand tactics are all stolen by Roxie -- is handed the juiciest songs of the show, and Wolf is up to every one of them.

"When Velma Takes the Stand" is superbly done, as are "Nowadays," her duet with Roxie, and "Class," her lament with the predatory jail matron, ably acted and sung by Carol Cohen.

D.E. Ortmayer also is excellent as the sleazy lawyer who sells out his clients as cheerfully as he sells himself to a jury. "If Jesus Christ had lived in Cook County and had $5,000," he says, "things would have turned out a lot differently."

Kudos also go to the sexy sextet that sings and dances the "Cell Block Tango," and to the fellows who ably assisted Vera in taking the stand.

It's clear that "Chicago" attracted Summer Garden's best, and that's just what the audience gets.

Now, if it would just stop raining.

The Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre is presenting "Chicago" through Sept. 5. Curtain time is 8:45 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Tickets are $9 Thursdays and Sundays ($7 for seniors, children and groups of 20 or more); and $10 Fridays and Saturdays. For information, call 268-0809 or 268-9212.

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