With its snappy-saucy take on Chicago, The Keegan Theatre shows it knows how to give an audience the ol’ razzle-dazzle. And Keegan has done the durable musical proud. In fact in Keegan’s mounting of the quasi-naughty musical on a bare wood set in a decommissioned church, a case can be made that Chicago’s vaudeville-based storytelling works even better than it would in a glitzy Broadway house.
Under the indispensable musical direction of Jake Null, the second-story pit orchestra kicks off the bright and divey “Overture,” and Choreographer Rachel Leigh Dolan gets the joint jumping with dancers doing boy-girl bumps and grinds wearing Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson’s burlesque-inspired finery.
Is it getting hot in here or what?
Well, hell yeah. But under the sure hand of Co-directors Susan Marie Rhea and Mark A. Rhea, the show’s actual heat-generators are soon revealed: women who kill…and women actors who kill (pun intended).
Foremost is Maria Rizzo as Roxie Hart… In Rizzo’s riveting performance, Roxie is a bundle of vulnerability, with a fascinating tentativeness that reads as both insecurity and moxie. Rizzo can belt out a solo (her “Funny Honey,” is sensational), and she can high-kick like a chorine on caffeine. But it is in the quiet authenticity with which she conveys Roxie’s conflicted inner life that Rizzo’s performance becomes a star turn.
Right behind is Jessica Bennett as Velma, Roxie’s jailhouse rival for tabloid fame and ultimately her vaudeville partner. Bennett’s vocals are strong, her presence is appealing, and her robust dance moves tear up the stage.
There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle and scads of sass and pizzazz on display in Keegan’s Chicago. Back in the 1970s, its legendary creators Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse, John Kander ingeniously packed the show’s plot and musical numbers into successive vaudeville acts; and on the Keegan stage, each such scene plays like a house afire. But in the end what sets Chicago apart as an American musical classic is its throughline of two down-and-out women with man troubles who become catty competitors then pick themselves up by their garter straps and decide they’re both better off in a bond. Not a thoroughly modern narrative of sisterly empowerment, perhaps, but thanks to a sterling production with two powerhouse female leads, it still works like a charm.