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June 8, 2006

Stage Matters

Chicago at NCRT and Bard Trek II


photo of scene from ChicagoIn a few months the musical Chicago will celebrate its 10th consecutive year on Broadway. With songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb (who wrote "New York, New York" and the songs for Cabaret), it won an Oscar as Best Picture of 2002. It is based on a straight play about two actual 1924 Chicago murder cases written by a reporter caricatured as "Mary Sunshine" in the musical version. But its theme, the criminal justice system as show business, came from famed choreographer and filmmaker Bob Fosse, who wrote and staged the first musical production in 1975.

Left and below: scenes from Chicago.

I'm guessing that we're seeing his experience with his 1975 Chicago in his brilliant 1979 film, All That Jazz. You can certainly see Fosse's combination of trenchant observation and bombastic cynicism as well as his style of choreography very clearly in the movie of Chicago, but I was turned off by its excesses, including the mechanically speeded-up dancing. The play is structured as a series of vaudeville acts, but the movie transforms them into extravagant dream sequences, a technique I feel was done a lot more effectively in Pennies From Heaven (1981).

For me, Chicago works much better on a smaller scale, such as the current North Coast Repertory Theatre production, directed by Xande Zublin-Meyer. There's a much stronger sense of the vaudeville period that's present in the music, and if this version and how it's performed in Eureka lacks some of the cynical edge, it also doesn't hit you over the head with it repeatedly. The satire is still there, and since the idea (crime and show biz) is no longer novel, the audience seemed to get it from the songs and dialogue.

photo of scene from ChicagoThe story concerns the fall and rise of Roxie Hart, a wannabe vaudeville performer who kills her partner in an extramarital affair, and Velma Kelly, a star in a sister act who kills her other half. Kimberly Hodel is a fetching, brassy Roxie, with a 1920s flapper look. Especially in one gyrating number in a shimmering gown, she's Betty Boop brought to life. Jolene Hayes brings a strong voice and a hint of vulnerability to Velma. With her vocals and acting clarity, Dianne Zuleger as prison Matron Mama Morton keeps the story moving, as does Daniel Scott Marcus as the seedy Master of Ceremonies.

After a few establishing set pieces, the show really comes alive with the entrance of Brad Curtis as Billy Flynn, the lovable hypocrite defense attorney. Curtis has a Broadway voice and presence, and the energy of this show seems to jump into high gear whenever he's on stage. But the show-stealer has to be Jamie Obeso's song as Mary Sunshine. It's as if Alfalfa from the Our Gang comedies grew up to become a female impersonator.

All the actors bring something special to their roles, and not just the principal ones. The choreography by Rebecca Rubenstein gives us less Fosse and more vaudeville, which works for me. Dianna Thiel's costumes are especially imaginative. There's a live band behind the performers, there are lots of songs, and the stage is often filled with a large, hard-working and committed cast. When I saw it on opening night-plus-one the pace was a little tentative, and some singing and band music was off, but that's likely to get smoother. There's dialogue concerning religion and sex that might offend some people. But this looks like a crowd-pleaser: It's on stage at NCRT through July 1. Reservations are recommended.

Last week I wrote about this season's plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (and misidentified an actor: It's Christopher Duval playing Aytolycus in The Winter's Tale.) That column was primarily for North Coasters who've already been to OSF. In my remaining space today, I'll try to give more of a sense of the place for those who haven't yet been to Ashland.

Building on Ashland's early 20th century success with Chautauqua circuit performances, OSF grew in fits and starts since 1935 to become one of the major regional theatres in North America. In three superbly designed theatres (by Richard L. Hay, who still designs shows in them), OSF produces 11 plays, contemporary as well as Shakespeare, and other classics over its eight-and-a-half month season. It sells some 380,000 tickets for 776 performances, employing about 100 performers, and 450 others. Its yearly mission, in the words of resident actor-teacher David Eric Thompson, is to "tell 11 stories with as much passion and energy and technical bravura as we can."

So today the industry of Ashland is theatre, and not just at OSF. On my visit, Wendy Wasserstein's American Daughter was at the Camelot Theatre Company, Oregon Cabaret Theatre was doing Tick, Tick, Boom! (a musical by Rent author Jonathan Larsen) and Southern Oregon University was mounting Ibsen's Ghosts, to be followed by A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Ashland Children's Theatre was preparing its annual Incredible Theatre Camp.

Shops, restaurants, white-water rafting — there's plenty more to do, but it all revolves around OSF. The Festival offers theatre tours (many in our group had taken one before), talks, related concerts and other events. A visitor's center has vintage costumes on display, and a gift store features theatrical masks and Oscar Wilde action figures. OSF proves that in the TV and movie age, people are still fascinated with live theatre.

Theatre in Ashland fulfills many hopes, and demolishes many excuses. It's not New York or any large city, or even near one. Yet people travel hundreds of miles to see Shakespeare done with high artistry, clarity and style. Other classics and contemporary plays are likewise performed to fully engaged and responsive audiences of young and old, who typically see two plays a day, with actors as well as audiences as fully committed in matinees as in evening performances. It can be done, and the proof is living.


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