Cheeky Cellblock Shenanigans
|Allen Cruz as Amos|
|Serena Fronimo as Velma|
|Mason Stewart as Billy Flynn|
|Korecca Moore as Mama Morton|
By Tom Wachunas
For openers, here’s a few my closing ARTWACH thoughts about the Players Guild production of Chicago from back in April, 2018 : “… Maybe it’s a piquant metaphor. Real life these days seems more than ever driven by insatiable social appetites for debauchery and scandal, or for the rationalizing of our celebrities’ moral turpitude, or the self-congratulatory pleasure we take in witnessing their demise. Is the audience for such things as complicit as the perpetrators?...”
OK, gratuitous moralizing aside, maybe I was overthinking it a little. The fact of the matter is that the big, funny, sizzling spectacle that is Chicago was made, ironically enough, all the bigger, funnier, and sizzling to the point of boiling, when it played in the small, intimate confines of the Guild’s downstairs arena theater. So it's interesting that the musical is being presented again - this time on the Guild’s main stage - so seemingly soon after that eminently successful run. In any case, it's always a real pleasure to see a show directed by Jonathan Tisevich, as this one is, and with a typically superb cast. I decided to revisit it, wondering if the bigger space could give a bigger bang.
Bigger space indeed. The stage looks cavernous and empty but for the towering, two-tiered scaffold platforms spanning the entirety of the back wall (scenic design by Joshua Erichsen). Helped along by the generally tenebrous lighting (designed by Reed Simiele) throughout the show, it’s all a somewhat Baroque-ish representation of cellblock gloom in Cook County Jail - home to a bevy of vaudeville showgirls awaiting trial for various crimes of passion. Additionally, the front of the stage has been extended by a wide ramp floated over the orchestra pit and stretching into the second row of house seats. It’s like a fashion-show runway, installed, no doubt, to shoot some explosive energy directly into the audience.
Yet these contrivances don’t quite fully succeed in launching a consistent spirit of gripping immediacy, despite the excellent playing by the live band conducted by Steve Parsons. And yes, the choreography by Brandon Leffler is itself, like the music, delightfully scintillating, but could use a bit more polish and precision as executed by the dancers. There are many moments on this stage, wide and deep as it is, when the action feels too diluted, too casual, too… routine. It tends to ramble when it should strut more with crackling intensity.
The true electricity, the real power and saving grace here, is in the compelling performances given by Serena Fronimo as Velma; Sarah Marie Young as Roxie; Mason Stewart as Billy Flynn; Allen Cruz as Amos; Korreca Moore as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton; and J. Ball as Mary Sunshine. Each member of this remarkable core ensemble is certainly a skilled-enough singer. More importantly, each fashions something more than a shameless burlesque, something more than a merely farcical caricature of a flawed or quirky individual.
These performers give us singularly memorable characters of credible human dimensionality, however lascivious, troubling or dark that may be. Serena Fronimo’s Velma is all prideful sarcasm and swagger until Roxie steals the tabloid spotlight from her. Korreca Moore’s Mama Morton, the cellblock supervisor, is a gritty, fierce protector even as she glibly observes, “In this town, murder is a form of entertainment.” Mason Stewart’s Billy Flynn is a suave, narcissistic crooner and a manipulative, greedy shyster attorney. The hilarious J. Ball plays Mary Sunshine, a giggly gossip columnist in drag, and brings down the house with a howling and hoarse pseudo-soprano aria, “A Little Bit of Good.”
A more tender, though equally show-stopping scene features Allen Cruz, playing Roxie’s hapless and timid mechanic husband, Amos, singing “Mister Cellophane.” In this self-deprecating, bittersweet moment, Cruz looks hard at his character’s social invisibility.
And finally, Roxie. Aside from being a comedic powerhouse, Sarah Marie Young serves up a deliciously complex portrait that’s altogether riveting. She’s a lithe and limber embodiment of sultry sensuality, nutty naiveté, and dauntless determination to be a vaudeville icon. What a combination – salacious sass, slinky sashays, lusty laughs… and of course, all that Jazz.
Chicago / Players Guild Theatre mainstage THROUGH OCTOBER 6, 2019 / Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio / Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday ( 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5) / TICKETS: $34 ($31 for seniors 65 and older), $27 for 17 and younger / may be ordered at www.PlayersGuildTheatre.com and 330-453-7619.