The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane scheduled a summer program with a timely theme, staging tragedies revolving around kings and would-be kings and their struggles with power and leadership. The namesake leads, Henry V, Coriolanus and Macbeth all forge into battle and find their plights validated by either death or glory.
As actual battles have dragged on in distant lands, however, the headlines have wandered elsewhere, and Tulane's Summer Lyric Theatre seems to have staged a coup for the most timely production of the season. Chicago's brief but shining run raised its curtain during a summer dominated by headlines about Paris Hilton's jailhouse hysterics and Lindsay Lohan's DUI troubles. Celebrity trials and high-profile legal problems are starting to look like a new genre of summer reruns.
Chicago is an entertaining jaunt through the workings of fame and, if not forgiveness, a willingness to look the other way. Celebrity, song and dance and sometimes just a whole lot of character can help beat the rap, provided there's a sympathetic narrative. Paris served some not-so-hard time, but she's far from the first celebrity to have turned to appeals not grounded in the legal system. The legendary Louisiana bluesman (and murderer) Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter is said to have sang his way out of prison not once but twice after performing for state officials.
The amusing premise of Chicago is that jail is not so much an impediment to a career but a place to launch it. Apparently, it happens all the time in Cook County jail, where all the inmates are angling to get their names up in lights, from the tabloid press' flashes straight to theater marquees. Roxie Hart certainly didn't shoot a man to try to secure an agent, but her flashy defense lawyer, Billy Flynn, essentially becomes just that. At Tulane, James Martin's Flynn is so dazzling, you have to wonder why he's even bothering with a law practice or representing a gaggle of jailbirds. Flynn is magnificently clear about his motivations in "All I Care About," and his sheer joy at singing about his expensive tastes almost make them seem virtuous. He schedules his trials the same way a casting agent picks actresses for leading roles. Getting the tabloid press to go along with an alibi is more like pitching a movie to a studio.
Directed and choreographed by Diane Lala, Chicago was packed with great musical numbers. A couple of very familiar faces carried the rivals-turned-partners Roxie (Elizabeth Argus) and Velma Kelly (Leslie Castay) through the show from Velma's sassy opening "All That Jazz," to the closing duet "Keep it Hot." Castay's Velma was smooth, confident and conniving, and even earnest in "I can't do it Alone." Argus nicely captured Roxie's rising and falling fortunes from the quirky lament "Funny Honey" to her moment in the spotlight in "Roxie." Charlotte Lang's Mama was a continual source of cool ease and jailhouse wisdom, especially on "When You're Good to Mama" and in "Class" with Velma.
In the supporting role of Amos Hart, Ricky Graham was a clear crowd favorite. He barely had to walk on stage with his deluded notion of having impregnated his own wife to get big laughs. Two-timed by Roxie, fleeced by Flynn and kicked while he's down, Graham's Amos nearly stole the show. He was a lovable loser when describing his devotion to Roxie and in trying to get his own exit music, which the orchestra passed on, but he absolutely nailed "Mr. Cellophane."
The show's big hit, "Razzle Dazzle," is a grandiose, fun, frilly production that could conceivably convince a jury that bright lights and a little sparkle are grounds for acquittal of just about anything. It's the prelude to the courtroom scene, a long and involved number with the entire cast of dancers climbing on a two-floor set. Fred Ebbs' lyrics feature deliciously silly rhymes of words like "Methuselah" and "bamboozle." Everyone wants to believe a good lie, or so the song says.
The courtroom scene worked like a minidrama within the musical, breaking the pace of the otherwise seamless flow of songs. The sight-gags about blind justice and leading the witness were corny but funny. Flynn lays out a litany of excuses from self-defense to jilted wife to expecting mother and who could resist the desire to give poor, poor Roxie the benefit of the doubt.
Tulane Summer Lyric's season includes three productions that all flirt with bad behavior and the way fame and fortune can cast it in a better light. Little Me and Chicago have been exuberant successes. The season concludes with Cole Porter's High Society this week.
- Billy Flynn (James Martin) tries to reverse the fortunes of Velma Kelly (Leslie Castay) and Roxie Hart (Elizabeth Argus) in Chicago.