The Manatee Players Riverfront Theatre has produced the Kander-Ebb-Fosse musical Chicago several times over the years I’’ve been attending shows there. The current production just may be the best one yet.
That’s in large part because of three things: the sure hand of director-choreographer Dewayne Barrett, who faithfully reproduces those patented Fosse dance moves (with some refining for the Players stage and performers); the professional music direction of Bobby Brader, who helps move the transitions from one type of song to another smoothly and energetically; and the nearly ideal casting of the two female leads--those publicity-mad murderesses Roxie Hart (Andrea Wright) and Velma Kelly (Eve Caballero).
The Fosse style is visible and enjoyable from the first number, where Velma and her ensemble set the tone for the evening with All That Jazz. This is Chicago, the 1920s, where anything goes, including lots of drinking, dancing, fooling around, and, when necessary, murder. (Any resemblance to the same type of sensational tabloid press when it comes to covering sexy killers today is purely coincidental, I’m sure.) Roxie is merely one of a throng of women who’ve shot the men who’ve done them wrong, in her case her rat of a lover--a killing for which her sad sack hubby Amos (Michael Morris) is almost but not quite willing to take the rap.
Wright, who was last seen in the theater’s production of Singin’ in the Rain, demonstrates a talent that was only slightly tapped in her role there as Kathy Selden; here, she’s manipulative, vampish, occasionally vulnerable, and both scared and scary. Her drive is matched by Cabellero’s as the slightly more sophisticated Velma, who’s been around the block a few times but still wants to cash in on her fame--or infamy. The two are onstage almost constantly, and they never seem to tire.
They’re accompanied by a believable line-up of fellow killers, the “merry murderesses” of the Cook County Jail, who make the Cell Block Tango a highlight of the production. Newcomer Latoya McCormick likewise puts sass and smarts into her role as Mama Morton, and S. Vitale scores as sob sister Mary Sunshine. Overall, there’s a lot of slinky sexiness to the show, as there should be, aided by David W. Walker’s down-and-dirty costumes and lighting (by David Upton) and set (by Kirk V. Hughes) that provide the right decadent atmosphere.
The male leads may not be quite as strong as the female ones. Andrew Suchman looks and sings all right as hotshot lawyer Billy Flynn, but he could get more mileage out of some of his more cynical lines. Morris doesn’t make too much of an impression initially as Amos (then again, he’s not really supposed to), but he delivers the goods on his Mr. Cellophane number.
All in all, fans of Chicago--and even those who may somehow never have seen it before--will get a treat with this production, which continues through Sept. 4. It’s just right for the steamy days of summer. Call 748-5875 or go to themanateeplayers.com.