In the midst of a record-breaking 85th anniversary season, Theatre By the Sea isn’t resting on its laurels.
Matunuck’s barn theater ends the season in style with a playful and provocative production of the Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago.” Earlier in the summer, the crowd-pleaser “Mamma Mia!” broke box office records. It was bookended by the delightfully surprising “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and the acclaimed “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
With its take on the legendary musical “Chicago,” Theatre By The Sea closes the season with a bang. The dark, subversive – but thoroughly entertaining – show boasts a company at the top of its game.
Set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, “Chicago” opened on Broadway in 1975 but feels just as fresh and relevant as ever. With its biting satire on American culture, the musical revels at the intersection of entertainment, commerce, corruption and murder.
The action revolves around a pair of women in jail awaiting trial for murder and their efforts, with the help of a sleazy lawyer, to win their freedom by capitalizing on the city of Chicago’s sensationalist media. The acclaimed 1996 Broadway revival went on to win six Tony Awards and is currently the longest-running revival in Broadway history.
Theatre By The Sea’s production is led by the husband and wife team of choreographer Diane Laurenson and director Bob Richard. Indeed, it is not just the Bob Fosse-inspired dancing that is most striking about this production, but rather how movement and physicality is so coherently and fluently interwoven into the play’s action from beginning to end. This is, after all, a show clearly inspired by vaudeville, and it deploys numerous vaudevillian techniques to tease, cajole and, ultimately, delight the spectator. As the opening number declares, “it’s just a noisy hall, where there’s a nightly brawl.” Theatre By The Sea’s show is at its best when it indulges its rowdiest instincts.
“Chicago” boasts one of the most thrilling opening numbers in musical theater. Theatre By The Sea’s energetic take on “All That Jazz” sets the tone for the evening and also showcases one of the production’s brightest stars, Michelle Alves in the role of Velma Kelly.
Alves is the show’s smoky triple threat, using a big voice and sizzling dance moves to turn in a winning performance as the vaudevillian murderess. Under Richard’s direction, “Chicago” is about as ambiguous, subtle and rich an effort as I have seen at Theatre By The Sea. Much of this is indebted to Alves’ performance, which carries through jazzy and sultry numbers like “Cell Block Tango,” “I Can’t Do It Alone” and “I Know a Girl.”
Jessica Wockenfuss provides a perfectly vivacious ingénue in the role of Roxie Hart, who has murdered her lover in a rage. The two women enjoy great chemistry as foils and rivals for the attention of the press and their lawyer. Their duets “My Own Best Friend” and “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rags” are high points near the end of the first act and second act.
The two divas at the center of the show are supported by a memorable band of character performers. As Billy Flynn, the charming and unctuous lawyer in a pinstriped suit, Matthew J. Taylor looks and sounds like he stepped directly out of the 1920s. He and Wockenfuss enjoy showstopping moments during the stylized take on “Razzle Dazzle,” and especially in “We Both Reached For the Gun,” where Roxie is depicted as Flynn’s ventriloquist dummy and marionette.
Tarra Conner Jones, an audience favorite in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” returns as Matron “Mama” Morton with the sassy and brassy “When You’re Good to Mama.” Kevin Loreque is pathetically endearing in the role of Roxie’s meek husband, Amos Hart, who just wants to be noticed. Loreque’s pleading take on the iconic song “Mr. Cellophane” was a second-act stunner, enhanced by clever lighting (and his oversized and droopy suit jacket).
Design elements are top notch, from the creative sets that glide back and forth from jail cell to vaudeville hall, to the colorful and seductive costume design. The orchestra, led by conductor Peter Leigh-Nils, is always on the money with John Kander’s brilliant score.
While there is certainly no shortage of big company numbers, Theater By The Sea’s “Chicago” seemed at times to lack crowd-pleasers to get the audience on their feet. But from where I was sitting, the show was working on the audience in different, but no less powerful, ways. The production team does well to resist the urge to polish up what should remain raw. As a result, this broody and dark take on American culture showcases the best of what Theatre By The Sea can do.
This season-ending production is an alluring and tantalizing killer of a show that puts an emphatic exclamation point on a triumphant 2018 season.
“Chicago” runs through Sept. 9. For more information on showtimes and tickets, see the Happenings listings in this week’s Arts & Living section or visit