Irving — In March of 1924, Mrs. Belva Boosinger Gaertner was arrested and charged for the murder of her young lover. One month later, Mrs. Beulah May Sheriff Annan was arrested and jailed in for the murder of her lover and employer. Both women were successfully acquitted in May. They were part of a little wave of murders in Cook County, Chicago, wives killing their husbands and consorts. At one point as many as six women were on what came to be called Murderess Row inside the Cook County jail. Gaertner and Annan were two of the most notorious, attracting a lot of media attention.
Newspaper reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins was assigned the crime beat, specifically to cover the trials of Gaertner and Annan. Working with what she learned from the Gaertner and Annan cases, Watkins wrote a play, Chicago, which was adapted for the stage by David Thompson, eventually opening in Chicago in 1927. Gaertner’s story inspired the character Velma Kelly, and Annan’s story became that of Roxie Hart in the play.
In 1975, the musical version of Chicago opened on Broadway, going on to become one of the longest running shows in musical theater history. Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse adapted the story and script for use as the book for the musical. John Kander composed the music and Ebb wrote the lyrics. Many people were first introduced to the story through the 2002 movie version, but it is the stage musical that audiences fell in love with. MainStage Irving-Las Colinas opened their 2016-2017 season with Chicago under the direction of B.J. Cleveland with musical direction by Mark Mullino.
Gaertner had been the wife of a wealthy manufacturer, a member of the elite class. In Watkins’ story, Velma Kelly (Liz J. Millea) was a popular entertainer. She and the other women were under the watchful eye of jail matron “Mama” Morton (Brynne A. Huffman) on Murderess Row. Velma hired Chicago’s most notorious defense attorney, Billy Flynn (Gregory Hullett). The attraction to her case for Flynn was her celebrity which he could market with the media and manipulate in the courtroom. The plan was proceeding well until another murderess arrived on the row: Roxie Hart (Rachel Reininger).
Roxie Hart’s main asset is her beauty, as was the case with Annan in real life. Roxie had been convicted of the murder, not of her husband Amos (Michael P. Rausch), but of her lover. Amos, blinded by love for his wife, stood by her through the entire ordeal. Flynn accepted Roxie’s case too, a decision that annoyed Velma who saw it as a competitive move that risked her falling into obscurity. From here the story then centers around the competition for Billy’s attention and that of the press.
The strongest duet in this production is “Class” with Millea and Huffman. Their vocal timbres are well-matched and the staging is effective to the advantage of both actors. Millea and Reininger are visually interesting together onstage in a way that works. Millea as Velma appears tall and sultry while Reininger appears petite and manipulative. Reininger is less musically rhythmical but not to complete distraction.
In “Cell Block Tango,” Velma and the women of Murderess Row describe their crimes. Cleveland and Mullino cast actors who can sing and move along with dancers. Millea is joined by Alexandra Cassens (Mona), Alexis Miles (June), Ashley Markgraf (Go-To-Hell-Kitty), Shannon J. Walsh (Liz), Jamie Ecklund (Annie), and Beth Lipton (Hunyak). Cassens is obviously a strong dancer and her part in Cell Block Tango was a standout. Kelly McCain’s choreography retains the Bob Fosse stylistic elements and feel.
While “Cell Block Tango” is probably the most-anticipated production number from the show, “We Both Reach for the Gun” is stronger and Hullett and Reininger are delightful.
Huffman really sells “When You’re Good to Mama.” Rausch is endearing as Amos and he has a good voice, but his rendition of “Mister Cellophane” receives laughter instead of empathy.
Preston Isham steals the courtroom scene in which he portrayed a juror. It is all Hullett and Reininger can do to maintain within the scene. Isham isn’t doing anything to overtly pull focus—he’s just really funny in that scene.
Tall art deco-style windows form the backdrop to Dane Tuttle’s minimal tiered set that accommodates the musicians and serves as a staircase entrance for the principals. The musicians are stylized like a 1920s combo. Beth Lipton (Hunyak) is also the violinist in the orchestra. Trumpet player Carlos Strudwick also moves from the orchestra into the acting ensemble as Martin Harrison.
Chicago is a great story with memorable music and songs and snazzy choreography. MainStage’s production is entertaining enough, but a little too heavy on the thigh-slapping, hokey factor.