Chicago is a Big Show, Too Big for a Small Stage
Murder, dancing and sex appeal are the defining characteristics of the longest-running American musical in Broadway history, “Chicago.”
San Jose Stage’s new production of the Kander and Ebb/Bob Fosse masterpiece is full of great dancing and singing performances, including a truly impressive ensemble, but it falls short of its potential due to a lack of emotional resonance between the actors and the audience.
Chicago tells the story of Roxie Hart, a hard-edged but short-sighted woman, recently arrested for killing her lover. The show follows her and fellow-murderess Velma Kelly as they try to get out of jail and stay in the newspapers by any means necessary in late 1920s Chicago.
San Jose Stage’s production adheres closely to the original choreography and costuming of the show. The supporting cast is phenomenal, particularly the ensemble dancers who perform complicated moves and difficult lifts with precise timing and agility. The group numbers in this show are particularly impressive because of the small stage area, which comes right up to the audience in San Jose Stage’s black-box-style theater.
Two performances particularly stand out, however, from company associate artistic director Allison F. Rich as Velma Kelly, and Branden Noel Thomas as Matron “Mama” Morton. Rich is solid in a challenging role, singing and dancing while molding the hard-edged character into someone that the audience wants to root for.
Thomas meanwhile takes on the traditionally female role of Mama in drag, with a sassy confidence that breathes new life into the character’s position in society. It helps remind the audience that, despite the power that she holds over the main characters, Mama is still the matron of a woman’s prison and a woman operating on the edges of society.
One of the best moments in the show is when Rich and Thomas sing together in “Class,” where the two bemoan the loss of polite society. This comedic number is made even better by the two performers performing with utter sincerity, even while the audience is laughing hysterically.
Monique Hafen Adams plays Roxie with an intensity and brutality that is surprising. She portrays a much more conniving version of the leading role, so that it almost feels as if she is conducting the events from the start, rather than a young woman in over her head. It’s an interesting take on a character. It didn’t always work with the character’s lines and songs, but it provided a new perspective on a familiar story.
The biggest flaw with this production is that it was staged and performed as if it were in a much larger theater. It’s a subtle setback, but it made the overall production less enjoyable.
Let me explain: San Jose Stage has only five rows of seats where the front row could reach out and touch the actors if they were so inclined. According to the theater’s website, the farthest seat in the house is no more than 15 feet away from the three-quarter thrust stage. In that environment, there is no reason for the entire cast, or even the leading actors, to have microphones. Between the live band on stage and the over-loud singing voices, the noise volume in the small space is utterly overwhelming.
Furthermore, every action feels overblown in the small space. Even the quiet, more subtle moments — such as with Roxie at the end of the play, when she is reeling from the outcome of her trial — feel over-dramatic, as if the audience would not be able to see subtle changes in facial or body expression. And, at 15 feet away or less, the audience can definitely pick up on the subtlety. The result is a play that feels flattened out and without nuance, despite the moving story and fabulous musical numbers.
Still, San Jose Stage’s production is solid and enjoyable, with only the mismatch between the performances and their environment halting the show from reaching its full potential.
Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, presented by San Jose Stage Company
Through: March 15
Where: San Jose Stage, 490 S. First St.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $32-$60; 408-283-7142, www.thestage.org
This review originally appeared with The Mercury News online and in print. Photos courtesy of Dave Lepori.