Hippo Manchester
November 17, 2005

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Theater: Racy, crazy blast at the Palace

Chicago offers itself up as “it” show of the fall 

By Robert Greene    rgreene@hippopress.com

Wow!

What else can you say about a production chock full of dancing, catchy songs, scantily clad actors, a ton of talent, energy, stairs that light up, an onstage band, well-acted parts and an opening-night standing ovation?

In general, I believe modern audiences give away standing Os too often but The Palace Theatre’s production of Chicago earned it on its opening night, Friday, Nov. 11

Chicago, running through Nov. 19 at the Manchester theater, is simply wonderful. It’s sexy, funny, wicked and thoroughly entertaining — everything you would hope a Broadway musical turned movie turned Hanover Street triumph could be. Headed to the parking garage after the show, several members of the audience could be heard singing, whistling or otherwise emulating production numbers all the way to their cars, and possibly beyond. I, for one, kept singing “Mr. Cellophane” until long after I got home. (I had to sit and watch home-decorating shows to make the urge pass.)

Chicago is a musical, based on a 1927 silent film, which was drawn from a play, which was in turn based on the real life story of Beulah Annan (fictionalized to Roxy Hart) and her death-row pal, Belva Gaertner, who murdered their boyfriends. Most recently, Chicago was a 2002 movie, starring Renée Zellweger, Queen Latifah, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly and Christine Baranski.

The story goes thisaway: Velma Kelly is a nightclub star whose celebrity is increased by her double murder of her adulterous husband and her sister. Her prospects for a quick not-guilty are good, with a little help from her adoring public and her lawyer, Billy Flynn. Then along comes Roxie Hart, who ends up in prison after gunning down her lover. Roxie also hires Flynn and turns out to be even more of a media darling than Velma and Velma’s case — and celebrity — moves to the back burner.

The musical Chicago, originally staged on Broadway in 1975,  was not especially well received by audiences who were not prepared for the show’s cynical tone. However, the production’s critique of the culture of celebrity, the power of money, the manipulation of the press and the failings of the American legal system are well suited to today.

Standouts at the Palace show are Susan Grady (as the ambitious sexpot Roxy Hart), Mark Nichols (as Roxy’s not sexy but steady husband Amos) and Mickey Lebrecht (Matron Mama Morton).

Nichols, an IT guy from Watertown, Mass., who does the theater thing on the side, was great as sad sack Amos, making the character pitiable while somewhat repulsive. You can understand why Roxy steps out on him but still feel sorry that she does. Amos Hart is a nobody who loves his wife with the same passion with which he fixes cars, which is to say, none. In his signature song, “Mr. Cellophane,” Amos wonders why no one notices him without understanding that there is really nothing much to see.

Grady is an old hand at musical theater with credits ranging from Audrey in Little Shop of Horror and the national tour of Saturday Night Fever. She’s perfect for the part of Roxy and can dance up as storm while still keeping enough breath to sing beautifully. Lots of fun is one segment where Grady serves as her lawyer’s ventriloquism dummy during a trial scene.

Chicago marks Lebrecht’s return to the stage after a 30-year hiatus. She’s a former Rockette and retired from acting in 1976 after doing My Fair Lady on Broadway. Class shows, as she and Velma (Lebrecht’s daughter Dawn  Lebrecht!) sing in one scene, and  Lebrecht offers it in every scene. She’s the best thing the Palace stage has seen in a dog’s age.

The show foundered a bit during the court scene toward the end of the second act, but quickly regained its footing and energy. The opening-night crowd was the biggest the Palace Theatre has seen, a fact that bodes well for the Palace coffers but poorly for getting a ticket. My advice: act fast.

Chicago is running 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18 and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19. Tickets are $20 to $40 depending on where you want to sit. Get them online at palacetheatre.org or call 668-5588. The show is fairly racy so adult supervision is suggested, but it’s not so blue as to shock anyone too badly.