Nashville Repertory Theatre ends its 2015/16 season with a beloved Broadway classic, and it comes with definite hits and misses.
Nashville Repertory Theater presents:
Chicago (March 17 – April 16; Ages 14 & older)
TPAC’s Johnson Theater
505 Deaderick St., Nashville
615-782-4040 • nashvillerep.org
Show times: Tue – Thu 6:30 p.m., Fri 7:30 p.m., Sat 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.
The second longest running show in Broadway history (behind The Phantom of the Opera), Chicago opened on the Great White Way in June 1975. A long-time favorite of musical theater-loving audiences, it’s interesting that the original production — starring Gwen Verdon (Roxie Hart) and Chita Rivera (Velma Kelly) — was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, but won zero trophies. The show’s 1996 revival (that came with some retooling) starring Ann Reinking (Roxie) and Bebe Neuwirth (Velma), on the other hand, wound up winning six of the coveted awards.
Chicago is a favorite of many professional theaters around the country, and for good reason. The subversive plot and notion of “celebrity criminals” from the show’s 1928 time period resonates strongly in today’s society, and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical numbers are clever and catchy, each song contributing an important piece of the story arc — it’s one of the rare musicals in which you don’t find much filler. Then there’s all that Bob Fosse choreography … those sleek, tantalizing moves that accentuate the hoopla of the “jazz and liquor” era of the early 20th century.
While Chicago is a favorite among regional theaters, they must take great care in mounting the show because of how demanding and precise the casting needs to be in order to successfully pull it off. Unfortunately, this is where Nashville Rep’s production falls short.
Nashville Rep Artistic Director Rene Copeland’s decision to cast Martha Wilkinson in the leading role of Roxie Hart is a head-scratcher. While Wilkinson is one of the top talents in Nashville’s acting pool (and one of my personal favorites, by the way), she’s simply wrong for the part at this point in her career. Wilkinson has played Roxie before — nine years ago at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre — but a lot changes in a decade.
At times, Wilkinson seems more like a cartoon character misplaced in a world where she doesn’t belong, and the reality of Copeland’s casting misstep here is that it throws the entire show off kilter. That said, Wilkinson gives it a good effort, and she’s got a great singing voice. Her shining moment of the show is playing the puppet version of Roxie in the rousing “We Both Reached for the Gun,” number, but overall, this is just not the right role for her.
Likewise, Nashville Rep newcomer Corrie Maxwell also feels miscast in her role as Velma Kelly. The mousiness she gives her character would be better suited if she had been cast as Roxie. Giving Velma a more worldly, harder edge would serve the character and the show well.
There are two on-the-mark casting choices in the show. Shawn Knight is perfect as Roxie’s sheepish “Mr. Cellophane” husband, Amos Hart. Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva as Matron “Mama” Morton is the standout talent in the production. She’s the authentic belter of the cast, and she gives her character all the appropriate toughness and sass to match her powerful vocals. She’s a pure delight to experience on stage.
The eight-member ensemble cast has a big responsibility in carrying out much of the musical’s choreography, and Fosse isn’t easy. It takes a lot of precision and syncopation to pull it off. The Rep’s ensemble cast suffers a few noticeable moments out of unison, and it’s the men in the cast — Billy Ditty, Everett Tarlton, DeVon Buchanan and Jess Darnell — who do the best job with the dance moves.
The big star of the show, however, is Gary Hoff’s spectacular stage set. It’s top-notch design brings the audience right into the action of a 1920s jazz club, and the cabaret seating alongside the thrust stage is a fabulous touch. Hoff’s set also houses the magnificent 10-piece orchestra led by Music Director/Conductor Jason Tucker (who’s also Street Theatre Company’s new artistic director).
Because of how demanding this show is, the miscast lead roles make this production feel like community theater. This is a concern since Nashville Rep is 30 years old. The Rep pays good money to actors. With the amount of talent available to Nashville Rep (the ability to draw from New York, for instance; every up-and-coming actress worth her salt would give her eye teeth to play Roxie Hart), it can be said that a spreading of the artistic wings is in order.