NSMT Mounts Imaginative, Stunning ‘Chicago’ (5 Stars)

Chicago’ – Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb; and Book by Ebb and Bob Fosse; Directed and Choreographed by Nick Kenkel. Music Direction by Dale Rieling; Scenic Design by Evan A. Bartoletti; Costume Design by Paula Peasley-Ninestein; Lighting Design by Andrew David Ostrowski; Sound Design by Christopher M. Evans. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT) at 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly through October 5th

Although the score of Chicago is most well-known known for the hit songs, “All That Jazz,” “Mr. Cellophane” and “Razzle Dazzle,” there are two songs that tell me whether or not a particular performance has that “extra something” – and the current production at the North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT) most definitely has “it”. “Cell Block Tango” and “Roxie’ are anchor points to a stunning show that captures both the glitzy jazz dance scene of the late 1920’s and the desire to be famous at any cost.

The theater was already in motion as patrons were being seated with “prison guards” patrolling the aisles. The scene was set with six gates forming spokes on the round stage, suspended by invisible wires. They rose to the ceiling for the opening number, “All That Jazz” belted by Bahiyah Hibah (Velma Kelly). The costumes of sparkly dresses, understated feathered headpieces, and long white gloves were h’ordeuvres for the eyes.

After “Funny Honey,” I expected the gates to drop down again for a traditional rendering of “Cell Block Tango”, but they didn’t. Instead, six male dancers appeared with poles and the “merry murderesses” went on to sing, dance, and explain how they were “not guilty” of offing their partners because “he had it coming” and “it was a murder, but not a crime.”

This is the scene where we learn that Velma has killed her husband and sister who were having an affair, but blacked out and can’t remember a thing. Now, she wants to use her fame to make even more money on the Vaudeville circuit. What makes this scene fresh and extraordinarily different than other productions is that it’s not just song and sound, or the solo act with chairs that we’ve seen before, or the men simply being lampposts for the action. The men and women pair off, tell their tale, and actually perform a tango – such a guilty pleasure!

Heather Parcells totally rocks as Roxie Hart, and that is an achievement in itself. The character can come across as sappy and stupid, making the sing-song soliloquy “Roxie” a painful, boring number, but Parcells nails it. Not only is she a talented actress and singer, she is also a fabulous dancer with the flexibility of a rag doll and timing of a comedienne, making this song actually fun to see performed. Wow. Just wow. No wonder she has dreams of making it on Vaudeville, too. Sean McDermott (Billy Flynn) is a flashy ring-master, but he takes a back seat to Parcells’ shiny performance. Parcells is McDermott’s marionette as they duet, “We Both Reached for the Gun,” and the audience’s laughter is contagious.

There are more than enough garters to go around, from the ladies wearing their prison blue shirts with high heels and black fishnet stockings, to the men like McDermott holding up their socks. Liz McCartney (Mama Morton) as the prison matron, Nick Kohn (Amos Hart) as Roxie’s naive husband, and C. Simmons (Mary Sunshine) as the Pollyanna reporter, hold their own and round out the main cast.

Lauralyn McClelland deserves a special mention. She plays Hunyak, a minor character on death row who is Hungarian and only speaks two words in English, “not guilty.” Nick Kenkel (Director and Choreographer) made some excellent artistic decisions when he increased her part. Between scenes, she is often pushing a broom, dancing to music emitted from an old radio, or briefly interacting with the guards. Besides being a great dancer, her appearances make the audience very sympathetic to her case when she is eventually convicted of her crime.

It also makes Roxie realize that she could be hanged, needs to make nice with Flynn, and that she and he have to figure out another strategy for beating the system. Ah, Chicago, it’s home to criminals like mobsters, murderers, and lawyers.

While dazzling dances and songs rule, there’s nothing like, “My Baby and Me” to remind us that this is a comedy, if there was ever any doubt.

There are plenty of surprises to captivate viewers, including audience interaction, a frequent complement to NSMT’s theater in the round experience. Keep in mind that things are not always as they appear when you meet “Velma” for the first time and “Mary Sunshine” for the last. For tickets and information call (978) 232-7200, or visit www.nsmt.org