Dallas — A staged version of the second- longest-running Broadway musical Chicago, complete with support from the full Dallas Symphony Orchestra, sounds like a winner. And for the most part it was, with a few oddities along the way.
At the first performance on Oct. 4, conductor and Music Director Rob Fisher announced that this was the debut of the show; given that, the path was remarkably smooth. Five singers took on all the roles from the original production: Tari Kelly as Velma Kelly, Bianca Marroquín as Roxie Hart, Lewis Cleale as Billy Flynn, Emily Skinner as “Mama” Morton, and Matthew Deming doubling up as both Mary Sunshine and Amos Hart. Every one of these performers was superb, unsurprisingly in view of their résumés: Cleale is currenly singing in Book of Mormon, for instance, and Kelly is in the touring company of Anastasia. Even in a staged version, they brought their acting chops plus a little bit of shimmy.
Marroquín’s Roxie Hart was that ideal combination of naiveté and opportunism that characterizes the role, with a rock-solid belt that belies her petite frame. Deming was extraordinary as both Amos Hart and Mary Sunshine. Mary Sunshine is usually sung by an operatically trained countertenor. But Deming managed to bring a Broadway style to the countertenor role, then seemingly without effort shifting into Amos Hart’s poor sad-sack number, “Mr. Cellophane,” as a tenor. Skinner was delightfully sultry as “Mama” Morton, Kelly brought a desperate sparkle to Velma Kelly, and Cleale’s Billy Flynn was all smooth, sanitized amorality.
The original production features only a small, onstage band, with a single violinist and a double bassist comprising the entire string section. Orchestrations to transform the musical into a work for full symphony orchestra generally worked well. The arrangement was still, appropriately, brass-heavy, but the full string sections provided a delicious lushness.
However, anyone familiar with the John Kander/Fred Ebb original knows that three women singers are not enough for one of the musical’s most famous tunes, "Cell Block Tango." It takes six. And with the exception of Velma Kelly, they appear only briefly elsewhere in the musical...so what to do? The perhaps inevitable but slightly disappointing solution here was to have the two men take on a women’s role apiece, while conductor Rob Fisher took the role of the Hungarian, which is spoken (in Hungarian), not sung. For audience members familiar with the musical, it was an odd approach, but I do wonder whether listeners unfamiliar with the show would have found it puzzling that two of the “merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail” were men. I don’t know what the alternative would have been, though; I suspect this approach worked better than having the three women double up on the six roles.
The performers did a fair amount of (necessary) acting, especially in “We Both Reached for the Gun,” which doesn’t work at all if it’s not played as a ventriloquist act. The “razzle dazzle” of Bob Fosse’s choreography, though, was sorely missed, and even the DSO, who sounded just great, wasn’t enough to make up for that lack. To see what I mean, go see the show in New York, or watch the film. It won the 2002 Oscar for Best Picture, after all. But the DSO’s version was certainly a fun evening, and you’ll have “Cell Block Tango” in your head for days.
I know I do: “Pop. Six. Squish. Uh-uh. Cicero. Lipschitz.”