By Hap Erstein
Although based on a play from 1926, that was adapted into a musical in 1975, Chicago “just feels like it was written five minutes ago, the way that it examines our culture and the cult of celebrity in our country.”
So says Denis Jones, a veteran of the concert-like revival that continues in New York after 23 years, the longest-running American musical ever on Broadway. He brings his take on the show to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in a new production that he directs and choreographs.
Still set in the 1920s, in the Cook County jail where murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly wait their turn to game the system and gain acquittal, the show has surprising relevance today.
“When you think about what has happened in our culture in the interim, in terms of social media, in terms of reality television, the proximity for each person in this country to celebrity has collapsed,” says Jones. “I think people’s need for attention and for affirmation via any form of celebrity has changed utterly in that amount if time. I think it makes ‘Chicago’ continue to feel incredibly relevant.”
The show is frequently revived, perhaps even overexposed, but selecting it for production was a no-brainer, according to Jones. “It has an incredible score, it’s unbelievably funny, it has a smart and tight book. It’s a show that a lot of people know and love,” he offers. “If the box office is any indication,” and there are only a handful of tickets left, “it’s something that people were very excited about seeing.”
Neither Samantha Sturm (Roxie) nor Sarah Bowden (Velma) has ever performed Chicago before, but it has long been on their bucket lists.
“I think, as somebody who started off in the dance world, knowing the dance vocabulary that’s in the show, this is a dream role for anybody who is a dancer,” says Sturm. “And I think it’s a show where — especially as Roxie — I get to show so many other facets of myself as a performer. I think my reputation is based on my dancing, but I want now to be able to show people other things that I can do.”
“Shows aren’t being written like this much,” agrees Bowden. “The roles we are playing are so juicy for someone who can do all of those things — sing and dance and act — so to get to play one of these roles is a dream come true.”
The show is closely associated with its original director-choreographer, Bob Fosse, and his distinctive, quirky, sensual dance style. Jones aspires to suggest that style without seeming to copy it. “There are things about the show that I think people come to expect when they see it. And certainly my interest in creating a new production of the show is not to throw the whole thing out the window and set the show on Mars where everybody’s on roller skates,” he says.
“I want to honor the experience of ‘Chicago’ and meet the expectations of the audience. So there are certain things in the show — like the two ladies in top hats with cane, at the end and the cellblock ladies with their bentwood chairs — certain things that I feel are important to deliver to an audience. But outside of that, I wanted to try to create a language that certainly stands on the shoulders of Bob Fosse, but is unique to this production. I think you will definitely see some imagery that feels familiar, but hopefully within that you will also find something that is fresh and new and created for this audience here.”
The long-running Broadway revival began as a concert in the popular Encores! Series that brings back neglected shows of the past. The production values were minimal, which probably helped the show’s lengthy success. Jones wants prospective audiences to know that the Maltz will be giving the material a full production.
“The physical production, in terms of the set and the clothes, there are lots of bells and whistles that I think the audience will enjoy,” he says. “At the same time, it is designed to put the performers at the forefront of it. We’re not creating a world around them that I feel will distract from what they’re doing. But in the way the play jumps back and forth from reality to show biz, I think our sets and costumes will help to clarify those two worlds.”
Describing Jones’s directing style. Bowden says, “He’s so precise, It’s like he has a chisel and he chips away at this masterpiece he’s creating, ever so gently. And as he chips away, you see this thing start to sparkle. It’s magic to watch, the detail, the precision and the vision. Yet he’s willing to bend, to take from his performers in a collaborative way and the piece becomes even better.”
Both leading performers give Chicago high marks for degree of difficulty. “For me as Roxie, it’s a bit of a speeding train,” says Sturm. “Once you get onto that train at the top of the show, you kind of ride it the whole way. So for me, what’s difficult is the stamina to get through the whole show.
“There’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster that you have to ride, as well as remembering the steps. And telling everything truthfully and honestly, with a kick and a wink.”
Unlike many a musical, Chicago is laden with thought-provoking messages. “I do think it forces the audience to think about a few things, in terms of what do we actually value in this country,” says Jones. “What is most important to us? The show forces us to examine our culture and our priorities. I want the audience to be entertained to be seduced by the show, but I also hope they think about a few things in the end.
“These women triumph and we are pulling for them, but they are also morally bankrupt individuals who, if they’ve learned anything in the course of the play it is how to work the system. I don’t think they necessarily take responsibility for their actions and become better people because of it. They become stars. Is that important? I think it leaves the audience with some questions, while at the same time entertaining the socks off of them.”
CHICAGO, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 East Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sun., Feb. 2. $62 and up, but sold out except for stray single seats, 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.