Watching traveling Broadway productions is much like eating at a Capital Grille. The fare is of an impressive quality, but rarely exceeds expectations. That is much the point. The music is familiar and most of the audience can sing silently along. In some ways, the penetration of these performances into Middle America is like the spread of chain stores. Customers recognize the logos from the road and park their cars in the sprawling parking lots, knowing that what's inside will be neither a surprise nor an affront. This is even more the case with Chicago, which is preceded in this Minneapolis appearance by a successful motion picture version. With a celebrity cast, the soundtrack is distinguished by idiosyncratic and recognizable renditions of the songs; few audience will completely shake the sound of Renee Zellweger tilting the high notes of "Hot Honey Rag" or the hip-shaking reaches of Queen Latifah's "When You're Good to Mama."
Those following along with the movie in mind will notice that there are some edits to the lyrics, likely towards the goal of avoiding affront. These edits are minor, but noticeable. There is a particular softening of the content of "Class," sung in the second act by Velma Kelly (Brenda Braxton) and Matron "Mama" Morton (Carol Woods), dropping, for example, the word 'twat.' I thought it interesting because of the...ahem...adult themes of the musical and the relative insignificance of the cuts to the running time of the show. The choices pointed again to the resemblance of these productions to chain stores like Starbucks or Pottery Barns, where the word 'twat' would not appear. Carol Woods' performance as Matron "Mama" Morton is most affecting. She is able to imbue a hardened character who has seen everything with a lascivious joy quaking with humor. Her Mama is bold and greedy and a pleasure to watch and hear. Her regard for the philandering-husband-killers that populate her jail is both wary and affectionate. The sexiness that Woods gives to Mama is not present everywhere in the production. Though Brenda Braxton is sonorous and articulate, there is a purposefulness to her performance that robs her Velma Kelly of sultry treachery, and renders her merely treacherous. The sexiness missing in Braxton's Velma only burgeons slowly in Bianca Marroquin's Roxie Hart. Marroquin starts tentatively, seemingly less comfortable in the early Roxie than in the latter. But when she arrives at "Me and My Baby," Marroquin is completely at home.
Gregory Harrison, most familiar to a certain generation as the heart throb of the television show Trapper John M.D., has been impressing audiences of Broadway productions for years. His Billy Flynn yearns to be a bit more unscrupulous, but entertains all the same. He is at his best with Mary Sunshine (R. Bean) and in the dexterous manipulation of Roxie Hart in the number "We Both Reached for the Gun." My disappointment in the production is the result of an unnecessary plot twist in the conclusion of the musical involving Mary Sunshine. Gimmicky and entirely superfluous, the twist is a poor judgment marring an enjoyable show.
The musicians, local with the exception of pianist Eric Barnes and percussionist Cubby O'Brien, are consummate and the set is terrific. Despite the inevitability of a comparison with the Rob Marshall film, this traveling production, directed by Walter Bobbie, is a pleasure -- giving the audience plenty of the oohs and ahs anticipated.
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