Review: Theatre Aspen roars into 38th season with exuberant production of ‘Chicago’

Julie Comins Pickrell
Special to the Aspen Times

What: ‘Chicago,’ presented by Theatre Aspen

Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park

When: Through July 22

How much: $80-$120


Few industries have been harder hit by the pandemic than the performing arts, and none more so than the theater. Theater needs a live audience for survival the way a deep-sea diver needs an oxygen tank. So when the curtain went up Thursday night on “Chicago: the Musical” — launching Theatre Aspen’s 38th season — it was as if 15 months of bottled-up talent, passion and longing all came rushing out in one big jubilant wave. For the next 100 minutes (the show runs sans intermission) a rapt, audibly gleeful audience was swept aloft by this air-tight production of Broadway’s iconic, Tony Award-winning musical.

In terms of sheer entertainment value, there’s little not to love about “Chicago,” and kudos to Theatre Aspen producing director Jed Bernstein for christening the return to new normal with it. Based on a handful of actual murders by women and the media circus they generated, the story is set in 1920s prohibition-era Chicago rife with flappers and floozies, shysters and shakedowns. Corruption abounds, celebrity reigns supreme and in the court of public opinion he/she/they who make the most noise wins. Fold in some burlesque and a jazz-hands-aflutter leggy ensemble moving to Bob Fosse’s steamy choreography and it’s easy to see why “Chicago” holds the record as Broadway’s longest-running musical.

The story follows the plight of Roxie (Julie Kavanagh returning for her third Theatre Aspen season), an attention-starved, wannabe vaudevillian who shoots her lover dead for trying to break up with her. Roxie’s impulsiveness lands her in Cook County Jail where she meets Velma (Jessica Crouch in her Theatre Aspen debut), burlesque star, two-time killer and Chicago press corps darling. The women become instant arch-rivals vying for headlines and public sympathy. The zeitgeist of the day suggests trials are won or lost based not on evidence but on public opinion. As Roxie’s ethically challenged attorney Billy Flynn (a suitably slick Nathan Cockroft) later demonstrates: Control the narrative and you control the outcome.

(A hundred years later, it’s impossible not to connect the dots to today’s celebrity-obsessed, news-as-entertainment political climate.)

In addition to a consummate cast of triple-threats, what makes this production soar is veteran Theatre Aspen director/choreographer Mark Martino’s meticulous staging and drum-tight pacing.

Interestingly, the action all takes place on a proscenium stage, when Theatre Aspen’s intimate venue naturally lends itself to a ¾ thrust stage (an arrangement in which the audience surrounds the action on three sides). One can only surmise the decision was a pandemic-driven effort to maintain distance between actors and audience; rehearsals would have begun weeks ago when social distancing and mask mandates were still in flux. Regardless, aided by the dynamic scenic and lighting design of David L. Arsenault and Gifford Williams, respectively, the show is visually pleasing and all the more impressive for the inherent staging constraints.

Under Eric Alsford’s music direction and excellent live accompaniment from the offstage band, number after number — 20 songs in all — sizzled and popped, hot as an egg on a recent Portland sidewalk.

Opening night’s already high wattage cranked up a notch in scene three with the entrance of Galyana Castillo. As Matron “Mama” Morton, Castillo planted a flag and took command of the stage belting out, “When You’re Good to Mama.” Other standouts included the sexy “Cell Block Tango” and “We Both Reached for the Gun,” in which Roxie, perched on her fast-talking lawyer Billy Flynn’s knee, plays dummy to Flynn’s ventriloquist. It’s a tricky scene requiring razor-sharp reactions — and Kavanagh and Cockroft nailed it. Martino’s amusing marionette-ish choreography and the ensemble’s impeccable timing drew hoots of approval from the house.

Jayke Workman deserves special mention as Mary Sunshine, the Chicago Tribune reporter who helps stir public support for our villainous vixens. Workman’s surprise-packed performance knocks it out of Wrigley Field.

Ben Liebert is equally memorable as Roxie’s downtrodden husband Amos Hart. Liebert (previously seen in Theatre Aspen’s “Avenue Q” and “The Full Monty”) manages that rare trick in musical theater: real emotional honesty. He takes a stock character — in this case the earnest sad sack — and renders him not just believable but achingly human, as evidenced in the tender showstopper “Cellophane.” Plus, he has the chops of a top-notch song and dance man.

The penultimate number “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag” finds former rivals Roxie and Velma released from prison. Having narrowly escaped death by hanging (the period’s preferred method of execution), they are dismayed to discover public attention has shifted to newer, juicier scandals. Their 15 minutes of media-frenzy fame have faded into the footlights. The two decide to cast aside their grievances and join forces on the vaudeville circuit. This plot reversal would have been more satisfying had the enmity between the lead characters been more fully developed early in the show. As it was, the story arc fell a tad flat.

But none of that diminishes the fact that Theatre Aspen’s “Chicago” delivers an evening of pure pizzazz and unalloyed entertainment.

Aspen Times Weekly

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