Chicago, currently wreaking joyful havoc at Le Petit, is a show that can easily seem heartless -- not simply because of the sardonic Bronx cheer it directs at humanity in general and the U. S. of A. in particular. But also because it lends itself to a cool, concupiscent display of tits and ass -- like a burley show conceived by Andy Warhol, with his trademark warmth and effusiveness. For me, the most recent roadshow version of Chicago at the Saenger was marred by this sort of modish S&M posturing.
Not that every play has to have "heart," but the pleasant, surreptitious little buzz of watching a window display from Victoria's Secret come to life begins to pall somewhere toward the end of the first act.
In fact, the "heart" in Chicago does not reside in the characters or their story. The show draws heavily on Brecht and his sense of theater. The clever framing device, deliberately obscuring the boundaries between the sordid plot line and a vaudeville show, emphasizes the distance at which we stand from these imaginary individuals.
So, what then, hooks us (black stockings and stiletto heels aside)? We are hooked by the performers themselves. It's as though a new character is born -- a being composed of the fictional figure and the performer who is simultaneously incarnating and commenting on his role. This sounds complicated when you try to put it in words, but in practice, it's simple, almost visceral; what a musician might call "a groove."
And, herein lies the great joy of Chicago at Le Petit. Without ever stepping over those invisible and indefinable bounds that separate exuberance from showing off, this cast is having themselves a ball. They are in the groove, no mistake about it.
Diane Lala and Karen Hebert (who also choreographed) are topnotch as Velma and Roxie, the homicidal Jazz Age floozies vying for headlines and celebrity. In their gradual metamorphosis from cat-fighting sociopaths to soul sisters of the spotlight, they cast a spell of droll, good-natured sexiness and blithe ferocity. Cathie Choppin Weinstein is their amiable and corrupt jailer, who -- like the madam in an upscale brothel -- exploits and mothers her charges.
If the girls are a formidable lot, the boys easily hold their own. John "so-you-thought-I-was-a-hippie, then-get-a-load-of-this" Grimsley has become the Cinderella of local musical theater. Once again, we the onlookers are amazed by the antics of a mysterious and charming apparition. Luckily, on opening night, one red high-top sneaker was left behind, allowing us to identify the snazzy smooth-faced song-and-dance man who created such a memorable villain in Billy Flynn, shyster lawyer and Lothario. Equally enjoyable is the sad sack, Elmer Fudd of a deceived husband played by Dane Rhodes.
D. Bellais, Brandt Blocker, Jauné Buisson, Susan Grozier, Cher Westcott, Holly Masson, Kelly Hirling Fouchi, Christina Tichenor, Michael Arata and Robert Pavlovich ably round out the cast, while the singing and dancing ensemble razzle-dazzle us in fine style.
Derek Franklin and Sonny Borey direct. Jay Haydel leads the band onstage, in Bill Walker's splashy neon-and-mirrors set.
To go from the big to the small of things: across town, at Rogers Memorial Chapel of Tulane, The Patchwork Players have launched their 19th season with a delightful musical re-telling of Cinderella (John Grimsley has nothing to do with this one!). The approach here is about as far as you can get from a glitzy extravaganza like Chicago. The show takes place in a non-theatrical space and the lights are left on throughout. And yet, the magic is as thorough-going and irresistible as you could wish.
Buzz Podewell is credited as "creator and director," meaning, I suppose, that, in addition to writing the script and lyrics, he also came up with the ingenious giant portmanteau that opens to form the backdrop of the show. The actor themselves change the locales by pulling curtains painted to represent the various locales.
Greg Stratton, who also provides the rousing banjo accompaniment to the songs, plays the prince. Tom Dugger is his father, as well as the fairy godmother. Lara Grice and her "daughters," Sean Patterson and Gary Rucker, are deliciously petty and hateful. Robin Baudier gives the 3- to 10-year-olds a personable and practical-minded Cinderella they can identify with.
Part of the fun, for the kids, is the way they are included as volunteers in the story. Part of the fun, for the adults, is watching the always-unpredictable and ever-hilarious actions of the kids, when they are onstage.
Cinderella runs through June 22. In July, The Players will do their version of Rumpelstilskin -- a great escape for beleaguered parents and their cabin fever-afflicted progeny.
- Homicidal Jazz Age floozies Velma (Diane Lala) and Roxie (Karen Hebert) look for headlines and celebrities in Le Petit's revival of Chicago.