‘Chicago’ Comes to the Segerstrom

“Oh, I’m no one’s wife but, oh I love my life!” belts Terra MacLeod as Velma Kelly, a murderess and vaudeville showgirl imprisoned for the murder of her husband and sister, at the close of “All That Jazz,” the famous number that opens “Chicago.”

Courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

A flashy tale of corruption, celebrity, and emerging flapper feminism, “Chicago’s” material, based on the true stories of two women on trial for murder in the Windy City during late 1920s, presents an interesting look at fame and gender at a time when the American dollar was at its most valuable and vaudeville was a primary form of entertainment. Murder, “Chicago” expresses, was equally entertaining for the prosperous American public at the time.

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical has become a classic since its original Broadway premiere in 1975. The 1996 revival of the show, choreographed by Ann Reinking, in the style of Bob Fosse, is the same version that premiered at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts last week. Though there were several moments of greatness in this production, the show was largely lacking in a number of areas.

In this production, “Chicago” is delivered much like a cabaret or musical review, rather than a typical stage musical, which, by having the band visible on stage behind the actors, successfully created a quasi-jazz club, yet also compromised the amount of dance space available and somewhat interrupted the play’s storytelling. The first few numbers seemed rushed and hastily directed. The band also sounded extremely imbalanced, and for a musical set in the jazz age, was seriously lacking in terms of brassiness. Where were the trumpets?

After a string of underwhelming performances (including a horribly screechy and campy rendition of the “Cell Block Tango,” for which all of the humor came from exaggeration), everything came together when the character of Billy Flynn, lawyer for both murderesses, played by John O’Hurley, made his entrance. O’ Hurley, perhaps best known for hosting the game show “Family Feud,” defeated presumably bad expectations with his natural stage presence, a theatricality that did not seem forced, and the buttery tones of his voice, which served his character, a lawyer set on acquitting two women clearly guilty of murder, quite well.

One of the problems with performing “Chicago” today is the inevitable comparison to the 2002 Oscar-winning movie, which is still considered one of the best movie musicals of all time. Yet one of the joys of viewing the musical is the chance to hear songs not present in the film, such as duets “Class” and “My Own Best Friend.” There are also many differences in plot and characterization between film and stage musical. Roxie Hart, for instance, is a much less fragile and terrified figure than she is in the film, and on stage feels almost entitled to acquittal.

As Roxie, Paige Davis shone, particularly during “Roxie,” her solo number, in which she expresses her excitement regarding her trial’s press coverage to the audience, holding up a newspaper and shouting, “I know you’re high up, but can you see this? This is a two-page spread!” Perhaps the best moment of the play was the courtroom scene, featuring a hilarious pantomime from Davis of the evening of her murderous act, and the events that she and Billy claim occurred.

As Velma Kelly, MacLeod was solid, and provided stellar vocals. The chorus as a whole also provided a strong support system to the lead actors. Yet the musical almost ended somewhat abruptly and anticlimactically, with an out-of-sync performance of the final dance number, “Hot Honey Rag.”

Overall, those with no previous exposure to “Chicago’s” material and a certain preference for jazz music and Fosse-esque choreography will enjoy this production the most. Fans of the movie, on the other hand, might be disappointed in some of the overdone performances and lack of Broadway brassiness. Yet in either case, the content of the musical itself is the same, and brilliantly showcases themes of celebrity, corruption and 1920s feminism … and all that jazz.