All of my close friends know one thing about me: When it comes to entertainment, I will pass up almost anything in favor of seeing a Broadway musical. Hello, my name is Armando and I am an addict.
Lately, however, I have been going through musical withdrawal syndrome. It’s been four months since my last fix. Now, finally, a little compassion has come my way from the Musical Theater of Santa Barbara as they offer up my favorite drug – pure and potent.
MTSB has opened its 2001-2002 season with the Tony award-winning musical “Chicago” based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. And it’s a born crowd-pleaser. The audience is first introduced to Roxie Heart (Kellyanne Wilson), an unknown chorine who has been swept up in the decadence of the age, like in a lyric from “All That Jazz,” and murders her lover for threatening to leave. Behind bars, we meet Velma Kelly (Heather Parcells), a successful vaudeville performer who caught her cheating husband in the clutches of his lover, her sister, and shot them both dead. (“Chicago” has a rather explicit recurring theme of men getting murdered by their women.)
In the joint, Roxie learns from Matron Mama Morton (Allison Tilsen) that if you are good to Mama, Mama’s good to you. For a price, she’ll get your name in the papers, book your vaudeville tour and get you acquitted by Chicago’s silver-tongued prince of the courtroom, Billy Flynn (Jay Joseph). Roxie is set on getting Billy – currently defending Velma – to take her case and, ultimately, to attract the public spotlight to her own trial. Roxie longs to see her name in bright lights.
All the performances were of Broadway caliber, surprising considering this is a road show, but necessary in an ensemble show such as this. Kellyanne Wilson gave a fine performance, but the standout was Heather Parcells. Her acting and dancing ability, at times, were on a professional par with the likes of Bebe Neuwirth or even Chita Rivera, who originated the role.
Road shows, like perishable fruit, don’t travel very well around the country. In general, they lack the Broadway magic of the original. Take for instance “Les Miserables'” touring company – the barricade looked more like abandoned furniture in Isla Vista than a French revolutionary scene. Seeing these touring shows can often be very disappointing for a first-timer.
Perhaps the secret to “Chicago’s” success is its minimalist set. The stage incorporates the orchestra, which faces the audience, leaving little room for big flashy numbers and just enough space to perform Fosse-influenced choreography – here done by Ann Reinking. The choreography is seductive and is enhanced by the glitzy costuming – tight and black, with ’20s jazz flavor and decadent elegance.
MTSB’s new season is now in full swing and off to the best start that this theater critic has seen since the first time I saw a production from the late Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera a decade ago. Perhaps the name change will help them shake their unfortunate reputation for putting on amateurish performances. “Chicago ” is a quality production and recommended for all those who have not seen a well-done musical
MTSB’s season lineup is offering some great productions, hopefully making the Granada Theatre a regular stop-off for road shows fresh from Broadway. At least it should cut down on the need to head south for high caliber musical theater.