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REVIEW: A stunningly appealing tale of music, murder and mayhem

Intoxicating musical numbers, a cast that shines, a story we all love: Chicago earned its standing ovation on its opening night at the Stratford Festival. Geoff Dale reviews for StratfordToday.
Final Chicago photo
Pictured from left: Sandra Caldwell, Chelsea Preston and Jennifer Rider-Shaw from Chicago now playing at the Festival Theatre.

In these troubled times of brutal conflict on foreign shores, economic instability and a global pandemic, director/choreographer Donna Feore’s rousing, eye-popping and beautifully staged vision of the classical musical Chicago is a timely remedy to restore our aching souls.

Acclaimed for her diverse creative efforts at the Stratford Festival over the years, she’s at it yet again. Her opening night presentation tale of murder, adultery and celebrity justice in the Roaring Twenties, with its razzamatazz music and boundlessly energetic dancing is an instant hit. 

Eliciting continuous joyful hoots and hollers throughout the evening, an appreciative audience ended the proceeding in grand style rewarding her and a gifted company of actors, dancers, singers, musicians, set, sound and lighting personnel with a prolonged heartfelt standing ovation.

For those living on another planet for almost a half-century, the tale of aspiring chorus member Roxie Hart and fading vaudeville star Velma Kelly is set in the Roaring Twenties. Here they are played respectively with vigour, sensitivity and an outpouring of genuine emotion by Chelsea Preston (Roxie) and Jennifer Rider-Shaw (Velma). The delightfully lurid story satirizes a corrupt criminal justice and a curious concept of the day – the celebrity criminal.

Chicago’s roots are in 1975 with Bob Fosse, Fred Ebb and John Kander turning a 1926 play by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about actual criminals and the crimes she covered into a musical that was surprisingly not a huge success initially. 

A subsequent revival was produced in 1996, transforming Chicago into one of Broadway’s longest-running shows, followed by a film adaptation in 2002 that snagged an Oscar as the best picture.

As the play is clearly focused on the lives of women and driven by female stage artists Feore, with keen foresight, decided production should be reimagined through the eyes of a woman. The result is pure magic.

In her own words, “Chicago is a big dance show and dance is not locked in time. We build on the foundations of masters past. I am taking full advantage of the massive talents of the exceptional dancers, actors, singers and musicians of our Stratford company to create a new Chicago for us, for now.”

Both female leads are brought to life as two cynical yet highly motivated jailed women looking for redemption from a shady lawyer Billy Flynn (played with delicious sleaze and charm by the wonderful Dan Chameroy), who promises the pair acquittals while making them media celebrities. Justice nor the likely issuance of the death sentence are hardly concerns of the principals on either side of the legal system.

Intoxicating musical numbers essentially tell the story, ensuring all cast members are afforded their moment to shine as stars not merely supporting players. The seemingly endless list of tunes includes the memorable All the Jazz, When You’re Good to Mama (performed with cheeky sass by the glorious Sandra Caldwell), Mister Cellophane (a heart-breaking yet humorous little gem bringing Steve Ross’s cuckolded husband of Roxie, Amos Hart, to centre stage) and many others.

Hardly a moment passes by when each cast member sings and/or dances their way into the spotlight, guided with confidence by the gifted director/choreographer and enhanced by musicians led by conductor/musical director Franklin Brasz. Invigorating sounds capture the audience and fill the Festival Theatre with the end result an overwhelming triumph for all the senses.

Hats off to those behind the curtains including: producer David Auster, set designer Michael Gianfrancesco, costume designer Dana Osbourne, lighting designer Michael Walton, sound designer Peter McBoyle, Supervisor Fight Director Geoff Scovell, alongside casting director Beth Russell and creative planning director Jason Miller.

Donna Feore’s theatrical wizardry – a remedy for your blues – awaits you neatly wrapped in a two hour and 24 minutes package of flamboyant escapism at the Festival Theatre until October 30.