When Billy Flynn croons All I Care about is Love, hes suave, swell and all smiles. You know hes putting you on.
Billy is the kingpin of the dark musical Chicago, the John Kander and Fred Ebb satire on American crime and its link to celebrity. Now playing in a stylish production at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts, Chicago has stellar leads, a disciplined cast and a clear vision of its cynical core.
Chicago is based on a 1926 play by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. In the summer of 1924, she covered a string of murders by bitter women who were represented by a sleazy lawyer. In the midst of Prohibition, the murder spree gripped Chicago, and the link between crime and celebrity was promoted by the tabloids. In the process, the line between the criminal justice system and show business also got blurred.
The stories became so popular that Watkins created a play centering around a fictional triangle: Attorney Billy Flynn and two of his questionable clients, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly. Watkins also skewered her profession for its complicity. Her play opened on Broadway in 1926. The first film version came after in 1927.
Fifty years after the murders, Kander, Ebb and choreographer Bob Fosse created a new American musical based on Watkins play. Making a hard left turn, Kander, Ebb and Fosse drove the American musical theater out of Oklahoma farmland and into gritty urban satire. The rest is theater and film history.
Pagosas adroit actor-singer Tim Moore delivers a confident, fast-talking Billy. Hes ably joined by the effervescent Marcelina Chavira as Roxie Hart and the simmering, multi-talented Elyse Neubert as Velma Kelly. This manipulative triangle keeps the action going through Roxies arrest and trial, Velmas jealousy, Billys shifting attentions and one of the oddest happy endings in musical history.
Director Laura Moore and Designer John Santangelo have paired down the work to its essentials. Played on a bare stage, the Pagosa interpretation reads appropriately as vaudeville entertainment.
Santangelos Art Nouveau painted proscenium arches over an upper stage framing a 1920 Chicago skyline. Lighting Designer Jacob M. Welch skillfully uses this frame to shift and intensify moods, going from hot pink to cold blue. Its especially effective when Roxies hapless husband, Amos Hart (Billy Pinto) disappears into the silhouetted buildings singing Mr. Cellophane.
Costumer Jason Weiner simplifies the color palette by keeping all the players in black except for the sob-sister reporter, Mary Sunshine (vamped by Ammon Swofford) in smoky blue. Only a few white touches contrast: Billys jaunty carnation, his chorines feather fans and Amos crisp white shirt.
Neubert deserves accolades for splendid choreography throughout. Shes taken a hip roll or two out of the Bob Fosse handbook, but doesnt overuse the signature shoulder shrug. Without the elaborate scaffolding and cell-block cages seen in so many productions, Neubert gives her dancers a few simple props to work with. Black poles, canes and fans help create a fresh movement vocabulary for this Chicago.
Still, the production isnt perfect. The singing is uneven; the acting varies in intensity and focus. Last weekend, a few questionable flourishes or possible ad-libs interrupted the flow and pierced the silky texture. For example, does Mary Sunshine need to loudly trumpet an uncertain falsetto just for a laugh?
That said, this is a complicated musical to stage. Some fans might wish for a live band, but the custom-made, recorded orchestration by Mitch Samu serves the company well. Its rich, textured and slightly sardonic. Listen for a snippet of Rock of Ages when Billy seeks to persuade a gullible jury.
With our current celebrity culture booming, not to mention a summer crime wave in Chicago, this musical may be more relevant than we realize.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.