Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Stage
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Allison F. Rich and Cast
Photo by Dave Lepori
Hips snap and swirl. Hands spread their fingers, Fosse-style. Shoulders roll as twelve bodies slowly swing around in unison, grouped together in a triangle that moves in soft but precisely placed steps. Through the center in her black lingerie snakes a slinking gal singing in a smoky, sensuous voice, "C'mon babe, why don't we paint the town? And all that jazz."

And onto the intimate, floor-level arena of The Stage in San Jose, Broadway's longest-running, American-born musical and revival Chicago quickly steps into high gear with a cast and choreography that prove to be a worthy rival for the currently running Broadway version of this Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse, and John Kander musical. Already, we in the audience realize that while not on a Broadway stage, the production before us is going to render an evening that is guaranteed to be captivating, eye-popping, and dazzling in every respect.

The familiar storyline by Ebb and Fosse begins with a chorus line of husband/boyfriend-murdering dames all in black, scanty wear and high heels reenacting their acts of gunning down, stabbing, choking, or poisoning their philandering victims in a high-kicking, action-filled "Cell-Block Tango." A press corps eager to hose-feed a hungry pubic with its daily drowning of lurid headlines and pictures of long legs and full bosoms is currently focusing its attention on Velma Kelley. Velma plots with her bribe-rich warden, Matron "Mama" Morton, how to turn her husband-ending scandal into vaudeville success. That depends on an acquittal, of course, and her freedom appears guaranteed with a court system eager for back-pocket payoffs, a press more interested in juicy details than justice, and a defense lawyer named Billy Flynn who lives for the flash of reporters' cameras and the cash he gets from "sex-ploiting" his clients.

To win her freedom and get rich on her sudden fame, Velma needs to stay in the daily forefront of the yellow-hued journalism, but there is a rub. Newly jailed, golden-locks Roxie Hart is ready to upend Velma's sure ticket to stardom with her own sordid, sensational sob story—one concocted with Billy's help and without an ounce of truth in it.

Rivals-to-become-sisters (after many hilarious twists and turns), Velma and Roxie command the stage as true stars from opening to close. We have already met the bold and brassy Velma in the opening "All That Jazz," with Allison F. Rich just giving us a small sample of an overall powerhouse performance in song, dance and attitude that we are still to enjoy. Roxy next introduces herself atop a stage-hugging ladder as Monique Hafen Adams sings about that "funny, sunny honey hubby of mine" while suggestively stroking her legs intertwined with the rungs as if she is making love to the ladder itself. She is grateful that her hubby Amos has naively believed that the dead man he caught in her bed was a burglar and not her lover, Fred Casely (a bad-boy, bare-chested Matthew Kropschot). Both Rich and Adams shine brilliantly in voice and dance in their solos, their numbers with the chorus boys and/or girls, and in their duets. Each also brings a great sense of timing and twist to create comedy, plotting to ensure she is noticed, even when behind bars, by the fickle press and public.

With a massively deep voice that shakes and shimmies in all the right and spicy ways—along with a proudly strutting body—Branden Noel Thomas shakes the entire house with "When You're Good to Mama." Thomas brings a host of sultry mannerisms to match such double-meaning lyrics like "If you want my gravy, pepper my ragu" as Mama explains to Roxy how—for the right price—she can help her step out of jail and onto the vaudeville circuit Roxy so aspires.

The get-out-of-jail-free ticket Mama can get Roxy is connecting her to the city's playboy lawyer, Billy Flynn, whom we meet in full Vegas-style as five dancers with white, feathered fans circle seductively around him in "All I Care About." Keith Pinto is nothing short of fabulous as the shifty favorite of the local courts and juries, singing with nightclub polish and style while dancing with oh-so-smooth pizzazz as he croons to his adoring circle of girls, "All I care about is love."

Roxy is not a murderess but a hapless victim, Billy later explains to a press that laps up as total truth his every word. Keith Pinto and Monique Hafen Adams bring the house down as her Roxie sits on his lap and in his control, becoming a flippy, floppy puppet with big-moon eyes and hilariously round mouth while his Billy ventriloquizes behind her back Roxie's little white lie about Casely's murder in "We Both Reached for the Gun." When Roxy finally gets her day in court, Billy becomes a ringmaster extraordinaire as the scene becomes a circus-themed "Razzle-Dazzle," with dancing acrobats and contortionists acting out his much-revised version of Casely's demise. Throughout, Keith Pinto reigns supreme as Billy Flynn.

Billy has an especially devout follower in reporter Mary Sunshine, who gullibly believes his every concocted fable of a murdering female's innocence. Kyle Bielfield employs both his operatically trained and his pop-artist-honed tenor voice to float notes to the heavens with stunning ease and tremendous humor as he sings in drag Mary's "A Little Bit of Good." Both hilarious and sad is Amos' "Mr. Cellophane" as Roxy's husband (a dumpy and non-assuming Sean Doughty) transforms himself to have the eyes and cheeks of Emmett Kelly while singing how everyone—especially Roxy—"look[s] right through me, walk[s] right by me, and never know[s] I'm there."

Weaving in between and among these and all musical numbers of the evening is a chorus of ten who execute with precision, dexterity and athleticism the demands of Tracey Freeman Shaw's Fosse-inspired choreography—Ms. Shaw being one member of the excellent ensemble herself. With emphasis on hands that flash wide, arms and legs that extend and flare in every possible direction, bodies in air and on floor, and forms that contort with rubbery ease, this chorus delivers its dance with aplomb. The inventive genius of both Ms. Shaw's choreography and Randall King's direction is constantly evident but especially so in the ever-presence of pairs and trios that are often in the background illustrating in their dance and mimed acting the lyrics sung by the principals.

Also ever-present but also ever-playing is the onstage band of eight under the direction of pianist and musical director Benjamin Belew. Scenes link together as the clarinet moans, the sax hums, and the trumpets punctuate, with drums and bass keeping their jazzy beats coming as the band re-creates the sounds of New York's dark and smoky 1920s basement clubs as well as the brassier, snazzier sounds of uptown's big-stage clubs. Robert Pickering has designed a mostly blank stage hugged by two ladders and two neon-lit columns, allowing the lighting design of Michael Palumbo to decorate scenes with telling, urban-hinting designs of shadowed and spot-specific light. Ashley Garlick highlights the bedroom nature of the crimes in question through costumes that are scanty and sexy, with all-in-black, see-through designs for the women and skin-tight, black pants, vests, and t-shirts for the men.

Randall King lets the entire evening of satire sexily sizzle as the horrific deeds of the accused cannot help but explode in laugh-out-loud humor. This high-energy cast never lets a minute pass without wowing us with their dancing and with voices that sell, sell, sell. The stage may be small, but the combined results of the director, cast, and creative team makes this Chicago big-time, must-see all the way!

Chicago runs through March 15, 2020, at The Stage, 490 First Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit