You may think you know Kander and Ebb’s Chicago — and you almost certainly know at least one or two of its tunes. The show has had admirable staying power since its premiere in 1975. Its themes of media sliminess are topical as ever; this week, the show’s borderline-fetishization of the notion of pregnancy is painfully on-the-nose. Chicago’s a storied favourite for a reason — its music is endlessly catchy and dance-able, its story equal parts resonant and fun. It’s a smart move on the Stratford Festival’s part to position this particular mega-musical as a mainstage draw this season, the first of its kind at Stratford since before the pandemic — give them jazz and the people will come.
It helps, of course, when Chicago is directed and choreographed with total poise and creativity — as has been done at Stratford by Donna Feore.
Feore helms Stratford’s Chicago with confidence, bringing to life the glitz and grime of 1920s Chicago’s nightlife, evoking but never copying the work of Bob Fosse himself. Chicago tells a simple story, framed as a vaudeville performance: two women, wannabe chorus girl Roxie, and washed-up solo performer Velma, are in jail, and with the help of sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn, they’re determined to get out. Against a backdrop of total tabloid media frenzy, the women circle each other in their attempts at freedom, as Roxie’s case plays out in the public eye through newspapers and in the courtroom. The two are archetypal foils of one another, similar but not the same.
Feore’s Chicago is so indulgent it’s camp, and that’s not a bad thing — clearly no expense has been spared on the production, and the evident cost has paid off. Michael Walton’s lighting, enhanced by Michael Gianfrancesco’s multi-level set, feels like a fever dream, as if the events of Chicago unfurl inside a luminous marquee; Dana Osborne’s costumes equally astound, breathing new life into the art of sequinning. Stratford’s Chicago is an aesthetic triumph, and feels right at home in Stratford’s Festival Theatre — Feore navigates the round, thrust stage well, and the production feels surprisingly intimate despite its Herculean scope.
A Chicago is only going to be as strong as its Roxie and Velma, whose deceased lovers, uh, “had it coming.” Chelsea Preston’s Roxie and Jennifer Rider-Shaw’s Velma are a formidable duo, both with strong dance chops and lovely singing voices. Rider-Shaw took a killer moment at the Sunday matinee I attended to glare at a Stratford patron whose phone had beeped, and the audience simply roared; from her first breath to her final “all that jazz,” Rider-Shaw expertly commands the theatre as the sultry Velma, complementing beautifully Preston’s (slightly) more demure Roxie. Dan Chameroy’s Billy Flynn is a perfect slimeball lawyer — shades of Breaking Bad’s smarmy solicitor Saul Goodman shine through effortlessly. Ensemble member Amanda de Freitas stepped in as Matron Mama Morton at the performance I attended, and she soared in the role, funny and tuneful.
Steve Ross as the peculiar and endlessly downtrodden Amos Hart is a showstopper. Ross plays the character for all it’s worth, unabashedly milking the self-deprecation and blind, unrequited devotion to his wife Roxie. Ross’ “Mr. Cellophane” is a hoot, as is the rest of his second act; it’s a world-class performance in one of Kander and Ebb’s stranger character roles, and it’s sublime.
Where this Chicago occasionally faltered for me was in its ensemble, which at the Sunday matinee was uneven in dance ability and energy. Kicks were not uniformly high, turns not uniformly sharp. Feore’s choreography is difficult, precise, dotted with quintuple pirouettes and highly synchronized group numbers; on Sunday it was clear for whom it came more naturally than others, which dulls slightly this Chicago’s sparkle.
This ultimately small quibble aside, Feore’s Chicago is a strong one, sure to delight musical theatre fans from across the province and Stratford patrons looking for a break from Shakespeare. Visually, it’s a downright feast, and some of the performances are as strong as these characters are likely to get: Stratford’s return to musical theatre is a triumphant one, and well worth seeing before the end of the season.
Chicago runs at the Stratford Festival through October 30. Tickets are available here.