Can't Do It Alone

Studio Connections stretches itself to mount a clean, capable production of 'Chicago'

It can never be said that Tucson's smaller, mostly amateur theaters lack chutzpah.

The da Vinci Players of Studio Connections demonstrated this in spades when they opened the musical Chicago last week. With book by Fred Ebb (who also wrote the lyrics) and Bob Fosse, and music by John Kander, Chicago runs for only one more weekend, so if you want to experience this spirited and entertaining production, you'd better get crackin'.

This is a very ambitious undertaking for the da Vinci Players and artistic director Robert Encila, and although it is a far from a perfect production, the group has done themselves proud.

The play about the seamier side of entertainment—and journalism—in the Windy City has been around for years. The story was inspired by the 1924 murder trials of two Chicago women, which were covered in a rather sensationalized fashion by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. The showgirls, who were involved in unrelated incidents, were actually guilty of their crimes, but were acquitted, in large part due to some fancy lawyering, some media manipulation and a sympathetic public.

Watkins decided that the story would make a good play, and her resulting piece has had various incarnations over the years—but she was unwilling to sell the rights when Fosse came calling in the 1960s. After her death, her estate had no problem relinquishing the rights, and the Kander/Ebb/Fosse show premiered on Broadway in 1975. The movie version, starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere, came out in 2002.

In this version, the story involves Roxie Hart (Rachel Santay), a blond bombshell of a young woman who kills her lover and tells her husband that the victim was trying to force himself on her. Her husband (Eddie Diaz), a chubby mensch nowhere near her neighborhood regarding looks and sex appeal, strikes a deal with slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Brian Levario), who promises that he will get Roxie acquitted.

Meanwhile, showgirl Velma Kelly (Chezale Rodriguez) is in jail for killing her own husband and her sister when she found them together in bed. Flynn has mounted a flashy defense for Velma, but has found in Roxie's story a chance for even greater celebrity; he takes her case as well. Velma dreams of continuing her career when she gets out of prison, and is jealous of how Roxie and her story has siphoned attention from her. Can the two fool the courts and put their jealousy aside to become a dynamic entertaining duo?

The piece has plenty of dusky, naughty overtones—this was the Roaring 20s, after all, and the subject is murder—but in the Studio Connections version, you will find a bright, clean, nearly innocently composed production. The cast is generally quite young, and although they strut their stuff well for such a youthful group, Encila has dispensed with the dark, smoky, backroom-tinged feel of the other stage productions and the movie. Although much skin is exposed, especially with the chorus girls, there is really no raunch. This is a freshly laundered Chicago.

There are plenty of elements which work well enough for this production to be likable and rather endearing, but there are things that get in the way of the show being totally sound.

Speaking of sound: It was a huge and problematic issue during the show I attended. Most of the principal performers wore wireless microphones, but the temperamental devices functioned poorly. They cut in and out, and in the case of poor Levario's microphone, it didn't work at all.

There were a couple of other technical issues which were distracting. Khail Smith's lighting seems well-enough conceived, but was very ill-executed. Actors often have trouble finding their light, but for the first part of Roxie's opening number, her face was unlit. C'mon guys; this is Lighting and Acting 101 stuff.

The costumes were a group effort, and they work pretty well, although there were a couple of wardrobe malfunctions.

Encila has enlisted Harriet Siskin as musical director, and she gathered a solid group of musicians to compose the band. And La Tosha Evans-Maynard's choreography works well, because it is geared to the ability of the dancers. It may not be the most-inspired choreography you'll ever see, but the dancers use their considerable skills to execute it quite impressively.

Santay's Roxie was a bit unfocused initially, but she managed to corral her wits to develop a winning characterization. Ida L. Rhem, as Mama Morton, the queen of the cellblock, was good enough, although her acting skills need refining. And Levario, although a bit miscast, brought a great energy to Billy Flynn and soldiered on remarkably well in spite of his microphone problems.

Perhaps the best treat of the evening was Rodriguez's Velma. The lanky singer/dancer had us from the moment she entered during the opening "All That Jazz" number. The young performer has a charisma which simply wows.

An ambitious undertaking, this Chicago certainly taxes the resources of Encila and Studio Connections, but they do a laudable job of bringing the story and Ebb and Kander's tunes to life. Sometimes you have to stretch to see just what is possible—and this stretch reveals enough talent and vision to mount a challenging piece quite admirably.