Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s Chicago: An absolute 10 out of 10! Rings the Bell!
– by Lee Greene
Oregon Cabaret Theatre [OCT] opened its latest production, their new adaptation of the Broadway record longest running American musical, Chicago, on Friday, July 15, 2016 and it was a stunner – an absolute 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. In a season of abundant great theater in Southern Oregon, with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival offering a banner year smorgasbord of 11 delightful shows and the Camelot Theatre currently presenting the runaway smash hit, La Cage Aux Folles, Oregon Cabaret Theatre topped them all, with this eye-popping, lively, energetic, musically wonderful and highly amusing production of Chicago. Everything about this show was exceptional – starting with impressive and memorable acting and singing, masterful staging and direction, exquisite choreography and dancing, amazing and effective costumes, a remarkable set, spot-on stagecraft (lighting, sound, projections, etc.) , a tuneful and perfect small band. . . . And not only was the show outstanding, but Oregon Cabaret Theatre, which happens to be the ONLY dinner theater around these parts, tops it off by serving a notable first class meal along with the show. I get asked all the time, “What’s good, what to see in local theater?” Today’s answer: Don’t miss Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s Chicago!
Chicago began life as a 1926 (non-musical) satirical stage play, written by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, based on two real sensational murder trials she covered for the paper in 1924. [Wikipedia, Chicago (play), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_(play)] Her columns about these women tried for and acquitted of murder proved so popular that she decided to write a play about them. [Id.] “The story is a satire on corruption in the administration of criminal justice and the concept of the ‘celebrity criminal.'” [Wikipedia, Chicago (musical), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_(musical)] “These cases were tried against a backdrop of changing views of women in the Jazz age, and a long string of acquittals by Cook County juries of women murderesses (jurors at the time were all men, and convicted murderers generally faced death by hanging). . . . in Chicago, feminine or attractive women could not be convicted.” [Id.]
In 1975, the play was adapted into a musical by Bob Fosse at the request of, and as a starring vehicle for, his wife, actress Gwen Verdon, with Fosse and Fred Ebb writing the book, lyrics by Ebb, music by John Kander, and with Fosse directing and choreographing. [Id.] The 1975 musical production was subtitled A Musical Vaudeville, and Kander and Ebb modelled each number in their score on a traditional vaudeville number or vaudeville performer. [Id.]
a type of entertainment popular chiefly in the US in the early 20th century, featuring a mixture of specialty acts such as burlesque comedy and song and dance.”
This format made explicit the show’s comparison between “justice”, “show-business”, and contemporary society. [Wikipedia, Chicago (musical), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_(musical)] The comparison is particularly apt today in the current political and social climate where “celebrity tries to trump [sic] talent, guilt, and the truth.” (or haven’t you heard of O. J. Simpson, the Kardashians, Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton, even perhaps both of the current nominees to be the next POTUS, as well as the very long list of other contemporary media celebrities in the news?)
Back to Chicago: in roaring twenties Chicago, Roxie Hart murders a faithless lover and convinces her hapless husband Amos to take the rap…until he finds out he’s been duped and turns on Roxie. Arrested and sent to the Cook County Jail block populated by women murderesses, Roxie and another “Merry Murderess”, vaudevillian performer Velma Kelly, vie for the spotlight, the headlines, and the attention of their wily and winning defense attorney, Billy Flynn. They are surrounded by a bevy of additional incarcerated women in the block, presided over by the corrupt Matron “Mama” Morton, who helps her wards obtain media attention and vaudeville bookings, for a price.
The story is spun with 24 musical numbers [the Oregon Cabaret Theatre program only lists 17, but all 24 are in fact present; for whatever reason they haven’t listed orchestral numbers, like the Overture, or reprises like Velma’s second go around on the song I Can’t Do It Alone, but all the pieces ARE performed.] The original 1975 production had the misfortune of opening the same season as the highly successful A Chorus Line which became the Tony Award and box office champion of the year. [Id.] The show was revived in a “concert version” adaptation in 1996, which went on to Broadway, where it set records, and won 6 Tony Awards. “The show garnered ecstatic reviews, enviable box office sales and enough awards to warrant a special Chicago trophy room.” [CurtainUp, Review.”Chicago” by Elyse Sommer, http://www.curtainup.com/chicago.html] It was subsequently adapted into a 2002 Academy Award winning film, which also was successful at the box office and gave the story exposure to a much wider audience. In the years since the success of the 1996 revival, the show has been revived in more than 50 major productions and touring companies around the world. [Wikipedia, Chicago (musical), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_(musical)]
Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s current musical adaptation harkens back to the original 1975 Fosse vaudevillian production, transforming OCT’s intimate Cabaret space “into Billy Flynn’s Place, and Roxie Hart’s story will unfold on his crumbling Vaudville stage” in a succession of “burlesque comedy and song and dance” numbers.
Chicago brings back a few of the stand out performers from last year’s OCT hit, Cabaret, including Galloway Stevens as Billy Flynn, Layli Kayhani as Velma Kelly, and Tamara Marston as Mama Morton. It also features OCT veteran Katie Worley Beck (The 39 Steps, 9 to 5, and more) as Liz, Billy Breed (Dames at Sea, 9 to 5) as Amos, Katie Wackowski (9 to 5) as June, Edgar Lopez (9 to 5) as Aaron/Ensemble, and Jake Delaney (9 to 5) as Fogarty/Ensemble. Deanna Ott (Roxie), Lina Lee (Annie), Amy Ashley (Hunyak), Kara Sandberg (Mona), and Redge Palmer (Mary Sunshine) all make their OCT debuts in Chicago. Also debuting at OCT with this production is director, Trevor Biship, whose previous directorial work has earned awards and nominations from the LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Theatre Awards, and LA Weekly Theatre Awards, among others, including the Ovation Award for Best Musical – Intimate Theatre and the Backstage Garland Award for Best Direction. If I had an award to give for Best Direction of a Musical – Intimate Theater, Mr. Biship would get MY vote; this production sparkled from start to finish. Where reviewers of the award and record-winning 1996 revival noted “its weaker second act” [The New York Times, Theater Review: Musical’s Brief Revival Mixes Joy and Contempt, by Ben Brantley, May 4, 1996], this OCT production did not lag but maintained a high energy level, and audience interest, all the way to the finish, with more than a little Razzle Dazzle towards the end. Credit Mr. Biship and the fine cast for their consistently electric, energetic, muscular, and hilariously amusing performances.
Any discussion of those wonderful performances has to begin with the three leads, Deanna Ott as Roxie Hall, Layli Kayhani as Velma Kelly, and Galloway Stevens as Billy Flynn. Together that trio just shined, collectively parading an abundance of exuberant talent across the stage and essentially carrying the show to unmatched heights upon their gifted backs.
Ms. Ott, making her first appearance at OCT, was an unexpected and thoroughly pleasant surprise. She sang and danced brilliantly, always in perfect tune, clearly enunciating her amusing lyrics, accompanied by marvelous gestures, movements and facial expressions. When called upon to, alone in a center stage spotlight, she fully commanded the stage, but was equally fantastic when sharing the stage and working with the other cast members, as when sitting in Billy Flynn’s lap while he hilariously works her as a ventriloquist’s dummy. A film casting director, who attended the opening performance, put it succinctly and accurately, remarking that Ms. Ott “transcended the role.” Indeed she did, providing a superb performance clearly enjoyed by an appreciative audience. Let’s hope that we’ll be seeing the New York-based, PCPA conservatory trained Ms. Ott again in the future on our local stages, that this will be just the first of many return performances.
I must admit to a bias favoring Layli Kayhani as Velma Kelly. I thought she previously provided a delicious performance as Helga in last year’s OCT production of Cabaret:
“a truly memorable turn as Helga: she displayed a full palette of facial expressions that unfailingly depicted the range of emotions appropriate to every moment of every scene plus a million watt smile when that was called for – if you needed any clue to decipher the prevailing emotion in any scene, all you had to do was glance at Helga’s face.”
Parenthetically, at the time, I thought OCT’s production of Cabaret was the best show they had ever done (“a complete triumph, an all around winner, as good a theater experience, if not better, than any other show on stage in Southern Oregon this season.” Id.), and that remained true until it was topped by the present production of Chicago. OCT keeps trying to raise the bar, and they have succeeded in spades with this fantastic show.
As good as Ms. Kayhani was in Cabaret, I thought she was even better in Chicago. Of course, the million watt smile is still on display and put to very good use. From her first entrance, her performance was energetic, muscular and captivating (my copious notes during the show: “great singing, great dancing, super choreography, just gangbusters”), and continued to maintain a raucous level of enthusiasm and taut as a whip dramatics (“Kayhani holds the stage, draws ALL the attention, scene stealer!”, “Kayhani takes over the stage AGAIN, moving, dancing, singing, really BELTS it out!”) right to the rousing conclusion of the second act’s final Velma Kelley/Roxie Hart duet.
Galloway Stevens, as Billy Flynn, is unforgettable, pure joy, totally charismatic, and hysterically funny. I loved him as the emcee in OCT’s Cabaret last year:
“His performance is energetic, inspired, entrancing, magnetic and attention grabbing – everything that the role calls for, and then some.” [Id.]
Frankly, Mr. Stevens is one of the best actors, if not THE best, I’ve seen grace the stages in Southern Oregon, and as some of my readers have correctly observed, I “see everything.” If I had an award for best featured performance by an actor to give, I would have given it to Mr. Stevens last year for his Cabaret performance, and though the competition is stiff (including Camelot’s David King Gabriel, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Danforth Comins, and Ashland Contemporary Theater’s Peter Alzado) this season, I’d give him another one this year for Chicago. Mr. Stevens has the whole package, of dramatic flair, gestures, facial expressions, movement, inflection, charisma, audience awareness and interaction, sensitivity to castmates, etc., to deliver compelling, unforgettable, entertaining performances. And it was on display throughout this show, from the moment he entered, walking to the stage through the audience wearing only a white, ribbed, sleeveless undershirt, undershorts, black garters, socks and shoes, beaming and pausing to engage audience members in dialogue. His performance is perfectly nuanced; at times when he’s called upon to, as when he works Roxie Hart like a ventriloquist’s dummy, or is delivering lines like “If Jesus Christ lived in Chicago today and he had $5000, things would have turned out differently”, he can turn up the wattage and light up the stage like a 10,000 watt bulb. But when the scene calls for subtlety or the focus should be on another actor, he can seamlessly and effectively recede and provide perfect pitch support for the dramatic action going on around him.
The three leads together are an unbeatable combination delivering an extraordinary and memorable performance. But the kudos for this show don’t end there. This is the largest cast ever assembled for a show at OCT, with ten additional actors sharing the stage, and all of them bringing some additional talent, dramatic or amusing elements, and positive contributions to this terrific production.
Billy Breed is front and center numerous times as Roxie’s hapless, dim, but adoring husband, Amos and delivers a yeomen’s job with the show’s most poignant and heart-string tugging number, Mr. Cellophane. He also does great work rendering a vaudevillian, red-nosed clown in several scenes. Tamara Marston is very effective as the matron of the murderess’s jail block, giving great life to the role, and consistently interacting with the audience and keeping their attention. For example, she’s hilarious when coaxing a member of OCT’s intimate dinner audience to stuff a wad of cash received from one of the jailed women into the decolletage exposed by her tight red corset. Redge Palmer is a hoot in the cross-dressing role of oversized and outsized sensational reporter, Mary Sunshine; he sings in falsetto, plays a variety of ancillary musical instruments (think kazoo!), and has an obvious great time with this part. The other cast members (Kara Carlson as Mona, Katie Beck as Liz, Lina Lee as Annie, Katie Wackowski as June, Amy Ashley as a memorable, non English speaking, Hungarian, “NOT Guilty!” Hunyak, Jake Delaney as Fogarty, and Edgar Lopez as Aaron) dance, sing and act up a storm around the stage, especially in the show’s big vaudeville style production numbers, like the opening number, All That Jazz, when they all come out in colorful costumes and present a wide variety of vaudevillian shtick, or the second act’s Razzle Dazzle, and the Act 2 Finale (All That Jazz Reprise).
As I noted at the outset, this production presents exquisite choreography and dancing, amazing and effective costumes, a remarkable set, spot-on stagecraft (lighting, sound, projections, etc.) , and a tuneful and perfect small band. Ms. Wackowski not only delivers the role of June, but she is the choreographer responsible for all of the consistently wonderful dancing throughout this show, and deserves all the credit, kudos, and appreciation she can get for such a first class job. The great costumes were the work of resident OCT costume designer Kerri Lea Robbins – a tip of the hat for that fine work Ms. Robbins. Craig Hudson should be acknowledged for the outstanding set and lighting – it really did look like a vaudevillian stage, right down to the ersatz oil lamps lining the foot of the stage, and the classic row of bulb lights around the proscenium arch. Sound designer Tom Freeman met the challenge of balancing the vocals of this large cast and the small but lively band. Mike Wilkins served as music director and played the piano – he not only insured that the show was well supported by well-done musical accompaniment, but really answered the call when various different cast members (NOT talking through their hat) would cry out vaudeville-style: “Mike! My exit music please!” Tom Freeman provided instrumental (in more than one sense of the word) percussion support on drums which is an indispensable element of good vaudeville, and TBA string bassist, David Miller, borrowed from the principal’s chair of the Rogue Valley Symphony, added his always superior rhythm contribution to the mix.
Finally, about THAT first class dinner. The menu, though a bit smaller than what one would find at some restaurants (well, unlike most restaurants, OCT also has to focus a good deal of attention and resources on putting on a show) offered a satisfying variety of alternatives at reasonable prices. (You can review the menu online at https://theoregoncabaret.com/dining-at-the-cab/menu/.)
I was particularly pleased, because as a relatively severe diabetic, I am on a restricted diet, giving me limited choices – at many restaurants with much more extensive menus, I am not able to find anything I can eat. But there were viable and appealing choices available to me on the Oregon Cabaret Theatre menu, and the servers were very accommodating in making substitutions to make the meal even more diabetic-friendly for me. The food was attractively presented, appetizing, delicious and filling. One of my table-mates was over the moon about the crabcakes. I ordered, truly enjoyed and thoroughly devoured the Pan Seared Pacific Halibut accompanied by a heaping helping of attractive and tasty fresh vegetables – it was a delicious meal. (And for those who keep track of such things, my medication-free waking blood glucose the following morning was a very healthy 92 mg/dL. Thanks for a great HEALTHY meal Oregon Cabaret Theatre!)
For those who are not hampered by the plague of diabetes as I am, Oregon Cabaret Theatre is famous for it’s Dick Hay Pie desserts – Umpqua ice cream and peanut butter in a chocolate crumb crust covered with chocolate sauce, and I watched with envy as numerous diners around me enjoyed that dish with obvious pleasure. You CAN, but do not have to, enjoy dinner as part of your OCT theater experience. Dinner is available before evening performances and requires that you arrive and be seated earlier (between 6:30 pm and 7 pm) than if simply attending the 8 pm performance. You must request dinner reservations in advance, from the box office, at the phone number below.
Performances of Chicago continue through September 11 at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, every day except Tuesdays, with matinees at 1 pm on Sundays, and evening performances at 8 pm on other days, at 241 Hargadine Street, Ashland, OR 97520. Tickets can be ordered by visiting the box office, calling the box office at 541-488-2902, or online at https://theoregoncabaret.com/show/chicago/.
All performance photos by photographer Larry Stauth, Jr.