Trade the winter blahs for the razzle-dazzle of 'Chicago'

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By Doug Deuchler

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Each year, just as winter begins to feel interminable, Oak Park and River Forest High School mounts their annual big musical in the Auditorium. This year's production, the award-winning 1975 Broadway hit Chicago, is guaranteed to razzle-dazzle audiences. 

Directed by Michelle Bayer, this show is exceptional. It's full of thrilling dancing, exhilarating staging, and strong performances. It's a guaranteed good time.

Of course, if you're familiar with the material, you know it's a bitter, heartless show about murder, greed, corruption, and treachery. There are no sympathetic characters. It's a coldly cynical Jazz Age story of two murderesses who parlay the lurid press coverage of their crimes into vaudeville careers.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention the version of Chicago being presented is called the "High School Edition." It's a bit shorter and somewhat cleaner than the original Broadway production. A few of the bawdiest lines have been dropped, as well as one or two of the less memorable songs. But the wonderful John Kander music and lyrics by Fred Ebb are mostly still here.

There are 75 students in the production and the 22-member orchestra, which to me never sounded better, is on stage during the entire performance on the second level of the huge set.

"We lost five rehearsals during the polar vortex," director Bayer tells me. I am astonished to hear this because it's such a strong production.

In 1920s Chicago, the public was riveted by homicides committed by women. The musical was developed out of a 1926 play based on the records of a female court reporter who wrote how fame and celebrity were valued over truth and justice, and how murder had become a form of entertainment.

Velma Kelly, a glamorous femme fatale cabaret performer awaiting trial for murder in Cook County Jail, is played by Allison Strom. Brassy Velma starts out as the media's top murderess-of-the-week, but she's dethroned by Roxie Hart, a self-absorbed showbiz wannabe, portrayed by Cait Egan, who shoots her lover when he attempts to walk out on her. A rivalry forms between these two women on Death Row because they share Chicago's slickest lawyer, Billy Flynn. The dapper, hotshot attorney, played by Colin Lonergan, is particularly good in the number "All I Care About Is Love."

Roxie is married to a naïve, faithful chump nobody pays attention to who is played by Declan Collin. He laments his chronic invisibility by singing "Mr. Cellophane."

The original production showcased the iconic choreography of Bob Fosse. But the dancing in this version, choreographed by Connor Cornelius, is also riveting. There are a number of incredible young men featured who are remarkably talented.

"The Cell Block Tango" is a particularly dazzling show-stopper. All the girls in prison explain how reasonable they were in killing the ones they loved. ("He had it coming," they all stress.)  Dana Small plays an immigrant murderess named Hungarian Hunyak. 

Matron "Mama" Thornton, the prison top dog, is portrayed by Shiri Clay, who explains her system of inmate assistance through the song, "When You're Good to Mama."

Each of the numbers is modeled on a traditional vaudeville act or star, such as "We Both Reached for the Gun," in which lawyer Billy Flynn, acting as a ventriloquist, dictates Roxy Hart's story for the jury and "pulls strings" like he's working a puppet while she mouths the words.

Many staff members make this production special. Jeffrey G. Kelly designed the 1926 costumes and Patricia A. Cheney did the period hair and make-up. Patrick Pearson is the instrumental music director and Meredith McGuire the vocal music director. Teslen Sadowski is lighting designer and house manager.

Chicago, the musical playing one more weekend at OPRF High, is lots of fun. It's a couple of wonderful hours of such strong sensational singing and dancing, you almost forget about the endless winter.

See the OPRF High School production of "Chicago," Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 28 through March 2, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Tickets: $10, $8, students/seniors,  oprfhs.ticketleap.com/chicago-high-school-edition/dates or at the box office. 201 N. Scoville, Oak Park.

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