ALL JAZZED UP: Kristen Brownstone's Roxie Hart consults with her lawyer, Billy Flynn (Tim Reynolds) in 'Chicago.' Roxie Music
When you go to see Chicago, you’re probably going for classic show tunes like “All That Jazz,” “Roxie” and “Razzle Dazzle,” or maybe for the scantily clad performers. Either way, all these things abound in City Lights Theater’s lively if surprisingly understated take on the Bob Fosse, Fred Ebb and John Kander’s musical.
Chicago tells the by-now-familiar story of Roxie Hart (played by Kristen Brownstone) and her quest for fame while trying to get off the hook for murdering her boyfriend. More than a clothesline for music and dancing, the musical provides a critique of celebrity culture and a cynical view of American justice. “Uncle Sam is just and fair, and he wouldn’t put me in jail, because I’m innocent,” cries an unfortunate “murderess,” not crafty enough to worm her way out of punishment. The audience can only shake their heads knowingly—of course Uncle Sam isn’t fair.
It’s easy to get caught up in the infectious music, but the unsympathetic characters remind us that this is really a dark satire. Interestingly, there are a few points in the City Lights production that take a mixed-media approach, filling in the action with grainy, newsreel-style projections. This places an extra level of alienation between the audience and the characters—an intriguing idea, even if the execution is awkward.
There are several noteworthy performances, with Glenna Murillo’s mischievous Velma Kelly most prominent among them. Tim Reynolds appears as celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn, incidentally recalling his turn as Guido Contini last year in the City Lights production of Nine (both are egotistic male characters surrounded onstage by half-naked women). As Roxie’s sad-sack husband and the play’s lone nice guy, Jay Steele provokes sympathetic “awwws,” while Juanita Harris makes an especially good Matron Mama Morton.
Another high point is Michelle Baker’s costume design for the female cast members. Reminiscent of Ziegfeld Follies getup, it is a welcome change from the Frederick’s of Hollywood-type lingerie often seen in stagings of Chicago.
The flamboyance of the musical numbers is toned down, with mixed results. The opener, “All That Jazz,” and the mock ventriloquism of “We Both Reached for the Gun,” while fun, leave you wishing for a bit more oomph. On the other hand, “When You’re Good to Mama,” typically an upbeat and bawdy arrangement, works remarkably well here as a slow, cool jazz tune and is the show’s finest moment.
Runs through Aug. 26; $17-$30
City Lights Theater Company, San Jose.