'Chicago' production gets it right at Annapolis Summer Garden

Production was dedicated to memory of famed original choreographer Bob Fosse

  • Opening night of Annapolis Summer Garden's "Chicago" performance
Opening night of Annapolis Summer Garden's "Chicago"… (BALTIMORE SUN )
June 05, 2011|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis Summer Garden's season opener, "Chicago," gets just about everything so right that it would please the ghost of choreographer Bob Fosse, to whose memory debuting director and choreographer Taavon Gamble dedicates this production.

The production's success is largely attributable to Gamble's smart sense of style, evident in the stark black background set and simple black costumes that enhance his dynamic choreography. Also evident in every scene is the meticulous care Gamble gives all aspects of this Kander and Ebb musical that reveals the corruption of 1920s Chicago's criminal justice system through its heroines, who are based on actual women reported on in Chicago newspapers.

As Gamble states in his director's notes, the original 1975 Fosse-staged production starring Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera was deemed "too dark and sinister" for audiences at the time. Twenty years later, "Chicago" won six Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. This might indicate that 1996 audiences were familiar with celebrity criminals and a corrupt criminal justice system — all covered incessantly in TV newscasts.

Kander and Ebb's timeless score is filled with great tunes that work perfectly with Fosse-style choreography, and the dark tale is not without humor and a kind of raw honesty in its gritty, flawed heroines, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. We are drawn into their world with the seductive "All that Jazz," gain insight into why "he had it coming" in "Cell Block Tango" and learn of Roxie's and Velma's wry fondness of their world in their final "Nowadays" duet.

"Chicago" tells a cynical tale of the 1920s criminal justice system, concentrating on Velma, who murdered her husband and her sister, and Roxie, who murdered her lover and tries to lay the blame on her husband, Amos. Both women want to become celebrities as a result of their crimes with the help of unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn, who knows how to get them acquitted. Jail matron Mama Morton can arrange lucrative vaudeville careers for them. Eventually Velma and Roxie learn that fame is fleeting, and another celebrity criminal will soon appear to replace them in the hearts of their insatiable fans.

Essential to the success of ASGT's "Chicago" are two star-caliber performers to play the Roxie and Velma roles, an excellent dance ensemble to support them, and strong musicians to deliver the score. This production has every essential covered, starting with the nine on-stage musicians, led by Ken Kimble on piano, who add steam to all 20 jazz tunes.

The ensemble of dancers works seamlessly, delivering every move as if success hinged on each individual's contribution to the whole in this show that belongs primarily to the dancers. Standouts in this group of dancers include gifted, tall, terrific Andrew Gordon, who kicks amazingly high with smooth perfection. Gordon is a recent honors graduate of Arundel High School who hopes to dance on Broadway and also has worked with Talent Machine Company. This fall, he will be a freshman at NYU pursuing a double major in piano and mathematics. Other standouts include dance captain Amanda Cimaglia and Katura Smith.

Gifted dancer Hannah Thornhill, who stars as Velma Kelly, is one of the best dancers we're likely to see on any stage. Her Talent Machine training is reflected in the extra zest seen in her every move, along with a combination of grace and athleticism laced with innate sensuality that defines her.

At Thornhill's ASGT August 2007 debut as Millie Dillmount, I described her as "a phenomenon who dances with airy grace and youthful zest and belts out bouncy tunes with pizzazz." She lives up to every promise and now adds smoldering charisma to her characterization.

Matching Thornhill with her own distinctive talents is Nicole Anderson, conveying a poignant vulnerability beneath her street-wise bluster in the Roxie role. Anderson also displays one of the best singing voices in the cast, investing each song with proper emotion. Anderson manages to hold her own in every dance number with the ensemble and even in the fabulous duo "Nowadays" with Thornhill.

Supporting players who shine include Debbie Barber-Eaton, who is magically seductive as Matron Mama Morton delivering a memorable "When You're Good to Mama" and in the "Class" duet with Thornhill. Barber-Eaton's Mama Morton has seen it all and still believes in making twisted fairy tales come true by exploiting the system.

Once again Tobias Young defines his role — here as Roxie's trusting husband Amos — delivering a mesmerizing "Mister Cellophane" that elicited prolonged applause for a show-stopping moment on opening night.

Again Nathan Bowen invests energy and talent in his role as manipulative lawyer Billy Flynn, but although he delivers his every song flawlessly, the likable, open Bowen seems to me to be miscast as Flynn.

As predicted here two weeks ago, "Chicago" may be the strongest Summer Garden opener in a decade and should not be missed.

Season tickets for all three shows are available throughout the run at $45. Single show tickets are $18. Reserve tickets online at summergarden.com or call 410-268-9212.

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