Arts & Culture

Theater group is all that jazz in production of 'Chicago'

As it turns out, we are never certain that we can expect something fresh, original and full of energy in just any production of "Chicago."

But when it comes to the May River Theatre Co. and this particular "Chicago," you can rest assured what you will experience right here in Bluffton is all three.

I attended a recent Sunday performance, and to say it "rocked" would be a triumph of understatement. The production soars. The leads, supporting cast and all those who came together to make this production the performance we enjoyed were successful on so many levels.

"Chicago" opened on Broadway in 1975 and turned up again as an even more successful revival in 1996 and as an Oscar-winning film in 2002. It captured the imagination of May River Theatre producer Ed Dupuis and co-directors/choreographers Jodie Dupuis and Debbie Cort. Three cheers for their creative genius and careful attention to all things that make musical comedy what it is.

Put simply, the script -- a satire of that time in Chicago when Prohibition was fully in place and criminals were celebrities and actors, in a way -- is perfectly loaded with everything we look for in Broadway musical comedy. The music is irresistible and so, too, are the local performers. We cheered the good guys -- not many, I'm afraid -- jeered the bad guys -- a plethora -- and through it all we laughed at the suggestion of a joke, a double-take or a double-entendre.

The character-driven story line follows Roxie, our star, a Vaudeville performer who has just shot and killed her "guy on the side" and has been put in jail. We also meet her loving, simple husband, Amos, possibly the only nice guy in the show; her sleazy, cheesy attorney, Billy Flynn, who only is interested in money and fame; and the colorful "cast" she meets in jail. There is Velma, husband/sister killer, and a competing Vaudevillian on her journey to stardom; the matron, who clearly has an agenda of her own; a death row filled with women awaiting trial for murder; and even Mary Sunshine, a reporter whom she counts on to promote her celebrity -- oh, and an innocent verdict.

The evening gets off to a rousing start when Velma (Debbie Cort) and the outstanding company open the show with "All That Jazz." Shimmying and shaking in pounds of sequins, Cort, who acts, dances and sings expertly with high energy and emotion, has our complete attention. The music is huge, but it is the way Cort moves that propels the opening scene and sets the stage for the flow of the show.

Look forward to her "Cell Block Tango," "I Can't Do It Alone," "I Know a Girl" and "When Velma Takes the Stand" (she has a knack for displaying random body parts, but this piece is a show-stopper). "Class," with Mama Matron (Kelly Alcorn), is off the charts, too.

Cara Clanton from Greeneville, Tenn., expertly offers the cheating Roxie as she catches our attention in "Funny Honey" and through the night in "Roxie," "My Own Best Friend" and with Velma in "Nowadays" and "Keep it Hot."

She works the audience with her voice, face and posture as she deals with elements of her future. We are loving every minute of getting her in a kind of "bless her heart" kind of way.

When Billy Flynn (Daniel Cort) enters with his "All I Care About is Love," surrounded by a group of feathered girls, carrying and dancing with giant matching fans of the boldest red, yellow, green and black, we know we are in for a phenomenal performance.

Daniel Cort is, of course, screamingly hot as he parades around, his ego in control, pointing out just what kind of love he means. His voice is big and juicy, and his timing is total perfection. What a treat to watch him move, and to imagine yourself at the other end of his riveting gaze. And don't miss the valentine shorts! Does it get any better? Having said that, look forward to "Razzle Dazzle," in which he and the company take the show around the bend and off the hook.

A high point in the production comes after we've met the cast, understood their characters and gotten the constantly changing strategies of Flynn and everybody's reason for doing whatever it is they are doing. "We Both Reached for the Gun" features Billy, Roxie, Mary Sunshine and company, and you have to picture this: Roxie, seated on Billy's lap, in a kind of ventriloquist posture, is being manipulated by Billy, as he is teaching her what to say to the jury. Roxie, expressionless, forms the words as Billy delivers them out of the side of his mouth doing a kind of Roxie impression. He's a riot and so is she. Arms flailing, head bobbing -- it just can't get much better.

You'll love the performance of Filip Belka as Mary Sunshine. Satin-suited, fox-scarved, carefully coifed and strikingly rigid, Mary nods and gestures as she sings "A Little Bit of Good" in a purposefully over-the-top vibrato soprano.

Alcorn packs a powerful punch as the matron, and her performance of "When You're Good to Mama," is off the wall.

Pete Zeleznik was spot-on and completely sympathetic as Amos. He was superb on the poignancy side, especially as he delivered his exceptional "Mr. Cellophane."

The show wraps up just the way it should with "Nowadays" and "Keep it Hot," as the amazing leads and supporting cast appear for the well-deserved standing ovation from the appreciative audience.