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Chicago
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
August 30, 2021

J. Harrison Ghee, Sarah Bowden
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny’s 103rd season in Forest Park is closing out in style with a bold, brassy production of the modern classic musical Chicago. Initially appearing on Broadway in 1975 and eventually spawning an enormously popular 1990’s revival and an Oscar-winning movie in 2003, the show is an incisive satire of the 1920s and “celebrity culture” in America in general. Here, with excellent casting, intelligent staging, and vibrant choreography, the show is nothing short of fantastic. 

This isn’t the minimalist, concert-style revival version that has been playing on Broadway since 1996. This is a fully staged, sumptuously appointed and precisely choreographed production that tells its story in a Vaudeville format, which is fitting for the subject matter, and time period (the 1920’s), as some enterprising women look for fame and fortune in a society where if they are famous enough, they can get away with murder. That is what Roxie Hart (Sarah Bowden) and Velma Kelly (J. Harrison Ghee), aspire to do, with the help of smooth-talking celebrity attorney Billy Flynn (James T. Lane). As the story gets started, Roxie kills her lover in cold blood and initially convinces her neglected but devoted husband Amos (Adam Heller) to take the blame. When that doesn’t work, she confesses and is taken to jail, where she meets Velma and the two become rivals for the attention of the public and the press. The events unfold in the style of an old-fashioned Vaudeville show, with each number given an introduction in that vein. 

The score is well-known, with memorable songs like “All That Jazz”, “Cell Block Tango”, “Razzle Dazzle”, and “Nowadays”. The Muny’s well-chosen cast performs those numbers and more with the appropriate style and energy. And it’s a truly remarkable cast, led by the fantastic duo of Bowden and Ghee.  Bowden, as the fame-hungry Roxie, has a great voice, excellent comic timing, and impressive dance skills, also imbuing Roxie with a palpable sense of needy ambition, excelling in the show’s darker moments as well as its more humorous aspects. Ghee–who was last seen at the Muny in a marvelous performance as Lola in Kinky Boots–is also superb as show-biz veteran Velma, who has killed her husband and sister in a crime of passion. Ghee’s Velma, physically towering over the rest of the cast (complete with stiletto heels), exudes stage presence and style, lighting up the stage from the first moments of “All That Jazz”. These two performers are the stars of the show, but the supporting cast also shines brightly, with Lane exuding showmanship as the attention-loving Billy; Heller in a poignant performance as the often overlooked Amos; Ali Ewoldt in an impressively sung performance as radio reporter Mary Sunshine. Also notable is the terrific Emily Skinner, who brings a lot of energy and character to the role of prison matron “Mama” Morton, pairing especially well with Ghee in several moments. There’s also a first-rate ensemble, livening up the stage especially in the Charleston-inspired dance numbers and the electrifying “Cell Block Tango”, skillfully choreographed by director Denis Jones. 

This is a great-looking show, as well, with a jaw-droppingly vivid set by Tim Mackabee that makes excellent use of the Muny’s newly rebuilt stage and all its technical resources. An old-fashioned stage setup is featured, flanked by the leaning Chicago skyline and a a versatile set that changes as needed from nightclub to prison cell to courtroom, The Muny’s video screens are put to good use, with eye-catching video design by Shawn Duan that provides “curtains” for the Vaudeville stage, as well as fitting backdrops for many of the production numbers. There’s also dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, and impeccable and colorful period costumes by Emily Rebholz. The Muny Orchestra, led by music director Charlie Alterman, plays the bold, jazzy score with exuberant energy.

Chicago isn’t just a flashy show full of memorable music. It’s a sharp satire, with some genuine darkness amidst the glitz, and this production brings all the essential elements of the show into sharp focus, with perfectly pitched direction and an ideal cast. It may be set in the 1920’s, but it has a lot to say about today’s America, as well. It’s a “grown up” show for a grown up audience, and its as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. This is a brilliant production, showing that the Muny, after a memorable season, has saved its best for last. 

Cast and set of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Chicago in Forest Park until September 5, 2021

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Zorba
Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander
Book by Joseph Stein, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
March 3, 2017

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Margeau Steinau, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Kent Coffel Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

One of the key lines from the Kander and Ebb musical Zorba is sung near the beginning of the show–“life is what you do when you’re waiting to die”. Currently on stage at New Line Theatre, Zorba shows its audience life in all its beauty and brutality.  At New Line, it’s presented with the usual strong cast and excellent singing, bringing this sometimes challenging show to vibrant life.

Zorba is an entertaining show, but it can also be kind of stark and brutal. It follows two central characters. The young, scholarly Nikos (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor), is full of idealism as he heads to a small Greek town to manage a mine he has inherited.  He meets the show’s title character, the older, boisterous Zorba (Kent Coffel) in a bar and brings him along to help him run the mine. This begins a relationship in which the younger Nikos is taught the realities of life and the more world-wise Zorba teaches as well as learning a thing or two. It’s structured as a “story within a story” that starts in the bar, narrated by a figure identified as Leader (Lindsey Jones), who reappears at various times throughout the course of the show. Through the course of the story, Nikos and Zorba encounter the local villagers and enter into complicated relationships with local women both dealing with loneliness in their own ways. There’s the older Madame Hortense (Margeau Steinau), who has had an eventful life and a string of short-lived relationships, who enters into something of a combative relationship with Zorba. There’s also the Widow (Ann Hier), who is ostracized by the local villagers, idealized by an infatuated young man (Evan Fornachon) whom she ignores, and who experiences a halting but powerful attraction to Nikos. The story is told with humor, drama, and occasionally a kind of harshness that seems flippant at times, although the music is strong and the characters lively and memorable. Like life, there are moments of beauty as well as of tragedy, although sometimes it seems as if the tragedy isn’t given the weight it should have.

This is a Kander and Ebb show, and as such the music is excellent. From the opening  “Life Is” to that song’s reprise that ends the show, there are many memorable songs, from Zorba’s rousing “The First Time” to his anthemic “I Am Free”, to Madame Hortense’s poignant “Only Love” and “Happy Birthday”. It’s a good script as well, for the most part, but at New Line it’s the performances that make the show, and especially those of the leads. Coffel is an ideal Zorba, with energy and charisma and wit, bringing this larger-than-life character to the stage with charm and veracity. There’s also Dowdy-Windsor as an especially sympathetic Nikos, and his scenes with Coffel are a real highlight of the show. Steinau is also a particular standout as the determined, lovestruck Madame Hortense, and Hier makes the most of the somewhat underwritten role of the Widow. Jones has a strong voice and presence as the Leader, as well, and Fornachon makes a sensitive impression as Pavli, the young man who is infatuated with the Widow.  These players are backed up by a cohesive ensemble, as well, although sometimes there can be a lack of energy in the more dramatic ensemble scenes. Overall, however it’s a strong cast, highlighted by the first-rate singing that New Line is known for.

Technically, the show is in good hands as well. Rob Lippert’s lighting and colorful set with pillars and a vivid Greek-village backdrop help to set the mood and tone of the show well, along with Sarah Porter’s excellent costumes. There’s also a superb band conducted by Sarah Nelson, doing justice to Kander and Ebb’s excellent score.  Michelle Sauer’s choreography is full of energy and true to the music and style of the show, well executed by the strong ensemble.

Zorba is a well-known story, as it was a book and a celebrated film before it was a musical. The musical, however, is my introduction to the story. Although its philosophy does seem to veer towards the harsh at times, it’s also a celebration of the beauty and messiness of life itself. At New Line, this show is brought to the stage with energy, intelligence, and an especially strong cast in the leading roles. It’s definitely a show worth seeing.

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Lindsey Jones (center) and Company Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

 New Line Theatre is presenting Zorba at the Marcelle Theatre until March 25, 2017.

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