Annapolis outdoor production of 'Chicago' shows promise

Baltimore-raised director Gamble looks forward to unique setting

May 19, 2011|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

The Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre opens its 45th season of outdoor shows on May 26 with a production of the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical "Chicago."

Bob Fosse's sassy choreography, which helped define the 1975 show, was much in evidence at a recent rehearsal in the West Annapolis Elementary School auditorium, where the dancing was so seductive that the utilitarian setting hardly mattered.

In rehearsals, you can discover a director's goals and discern how near he is to achieving them. Taavon Gamble, 26, grew up in Baltimore and attended Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Dundalk, a magnet school. He is now a New York dancer and "proud Actors Equity member" who is happy to be near his boyhood home directing his first show at Annapolis Summer Garden.

Well-suited to this directing task, Gamble has worked with a number of Fosse dancers, including Ann Reinking, who initially took over the role of Roxie Hart in 1977 when the originator, Gwen Verdon (Fosse's wife), left the show. Later, Reinking reprised the Roxie role when she choreographed in Fosse's style the 1996 Tony-winning "Chicago" revival.

Before rehearsal, Gamble shared his enthusiasm over the prospect of working for the first time in an outdoor venue.

"I especially like the intimacy of the space at Annapolis Summer Garden, where everyone is close so you break the fourth wall. The danger is you can't really hide things here. The audience and actors are all in the same space."

Of his admiration for Fosse, Gamble said, "Fosse dancing is very simple but also challenging to do. It has to be right if it's just moving a finger or shoulder. Fosse knew the importance of each individual dancer in the ensemble, and it seems to him all of them were principals."

At rehearsal, Gamble proved adept at discovering and exploiting the acting and dance skills of each performer. When rehearsing dialogue, director and actors would quietly discuss the nuance of certain lines, then go over them until they were satisfied.

Most of the rehearsal segment I observed concentrated on dance, where Gamble became fully engaged with the hardworking, talented ASGT dance ensemble, constantly focused on imparting the distinctive Fosse style to them. In turn, every dancer seemed totally on task and precisely on cue in delivering Fosse's classic choreography. Their moves caught the required shoulder and hand details, along with pelvic thrusts, smooth kicks and strong leaps that displayed formidable energy.

Watching the dance ensemble rehearse the opening "All that Jazz" number, I was struck by how dedicated every dancer was in delivering many of Fosse's signature moves. The polished mastery of Hannah Thornhill was especially impressive. She plays Velma Kelly, a former vaudevillian who murdered her husband and her sister after finding them in bed together. Kelly becomes a celebrity after being defended by lawyer Billy Flynn.

"Chicago" presents a cynical view of the 1920s criminal justice system and the emergence of the "celebrity criminal" in Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. Velma resents the arrival of Roxie at the Cook County Jail because she fears Roxie will replace her as the new celebrity.

Although Roxie's husband, Amos, initially took the blame for killing a "burglar," he refuses to lie about the shooting after discovering the "burglar" was his wife's lover.

After Roxie admits to killing her lover, she secures the guidance of jailhouse matron "Mama" Morton, who arranges for lawyer Flynn to defend Roxie.

Nicole Anderson as Roxie Hart already projected a beguiling mix of naivete and native street smarts, able to manipulate her husband. In her scene with Velma and Mama Morton, Roxie soon learns how her criminal act could lead to fame.

Cast as predatory Mama Morton presiding over her own lucrative cell-block public relations empire is Debbie Barber-Eaton, who summoned a deliciously corrupt aura in her scene with Anderson's Roxie and Thornhill's Velma, and she also delivered a sly version of "When You're Good to Mama."

What I saw in about an hour of rehearsal convinced me that this will be among the strongest ASGT opening shows of any season. "Chicago" opens Thursday, May 26, and runs through Sunday, June 19. The season's second show, "The Marvelous Wonderettes," will also run four Thursday through Sunday weekends, and the final show, "Hairspray," will run five weekends beginning Aug. 4. All shows start at 8:30 p.m. at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre at 143 Compromise St. across from the City Dock.

Season tickets for all three shows are available for $45, and single-show tickets are $18. Get more information or reserve tickets online at summergarden.com or call 410-268-9212.

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