Somewhere deep inside the Cook County Jail, circa 1920s, lies the intersection of blind justice and show biz.
It is a cynical spot to be sure, but also extremely entertaining, thanks to composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, director-choreographer Denis Jones and a skilled Maltz Jupiter Theatre company of performers and designers.
The show is Chicago, based on a 1926 play and a 1942 movie, and yet it felt ahead of its time when the musical adaptation first arrived on Broadway in 1975. Fast forward to 1996, when a concert-style revival opened and the musical’s cult of celebrity crime theme coincided with the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Twenty-four years and many metaphors later, the show is still playing in New York, the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.
It will probably occur to those theatergoers lucky enough to have tickets for the three-week Maltz engagement – said to be virtually sold out – that the show is even more relevant to our media-frenzied world today than when it was written. And certainly the eclectic, satirical score is as fresh and smart-mouthed as ever.
The story line concerns crime-of-passion murderess Velma Kelly, queen of her cell block until homicidal Roxie Hart arrives and competes for attention and perks from Matron “Mama” Morton and razzle-dazzle defense attorney Billy Flynn.
What makes the Maltz production so stellar is the exceptional work of its two female leads, Sarah Bowden (Velma) and Samantha Sturm (Roxie). Both are triple threat dancer-singer-actors, as the material requires, with killer charisma to spare.
Bowden seems to have the edge in dance, or at least her character has a couple of flashy solos – the breakneck vaudeville turn (“I Can’t Do It Alone”) and her courtroom romp (“When Velma Takes the Stand”) – that allow her to show off her manic moves. And Sturm demonstrates a particular flair for comedy in her “Roxie” monologue and as a ragdoll ventriloquist’s dummy in “We Both Reached For the Gun.”)
Although the show is steeped in the steps of Bob Fosse – Jones spent years in Chicago on Broadway – his choreography here diverges into his own inventions with just the flavor of Fosse’s quirky sensuality. Jones clearly hand-picked his ensemble well and their collective dance numbers are fluid, tight and brimming with raw sex.
As lawyer Flynn, Nicolas Dromard oozes smarminess which, in this context, is a compliment. Plus-sized Altamiece Carolyn Cooper comes on strong as scratch-my-back-I’ll scratch-yours “Mama” Morton, and she and Bowden have delicious comic timing on “Class,” a tongue-in-cheek salute to the good old days. Gone is the gender bending aspect of sob sister Mary Sunshine, but Anna McNeely more than compensates, turning the throwaway “A Little Bit of Good” into a three-act play.
Taking a cue from the Broadway revival, costume designer Andrea Hood often clothes the women in lingerie, bustiers and garter belts. Why is unclear, but you wouldn’t want it any other way. And in one of Roxie’s fantasy scenes, she has a split-second costume change to a sparkly silver dress that is sheer magic.
Adam Koch’s versatile unit set features a stage-wide catwalk and a faux-brick back wall that leaves plenty of space for dance, and for the lighting effects of Cory Pattak – lots of neon and spotlights that take from the jail into the characters’ minds. Tucked into the elevated stage right corner are Eric Alsford and his horn-hot nine-piece pitch-perfect jazz band.
Chances are you have already seen some version of Chicago – on Broadway, on tour or in the Oscar-winning movie version. But Jones and his cronies make a compelling case for seeing it again, seeing it anew. Chicago, of course, is known as The Second City, but the Maltz’s Chicago takes second place to nothing.
CHICAGO, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 East Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday, Feb. 2. $62 and up, but sold out except for stray single seats, 561-575-2223.