Arts & Events

Eye From the Aisle:Lose the Blues at Willow’s ChicAGO in Martinez

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday June 07, 2011 - 03:25:00 PM
Elizabeth Palmer, Maggie Franks, James Udom, Jennie Angel, Joseph Brunicardi, Kerrie Wininger,
            Mark Farrell, Nicole Helfer, Maggie Connard, Isaiah Tyrelle, Giuliana Karezis, Adria Swan,
            Michelle Ianiro, Shaun Carroll.
Judy Potter
Elizabeth Palmer, Maggie Franks, James Udom, Jennie Angel, Joseph Brunicardi, Kerrie Wininger, Mark Farrell, Nicole Helfer, Maggie Connard, Isaiah Tyrelle, Giuliana Karezis, Adria Swan, Michelle Ianiro, Shaun Carroll.

CHICAGO, at the Willows Cabaret in Martinez isa great way to lose the blues with this competent and entertaining production. By the famous team of Kander and Ebb who wrote Tony Winners “Cabaret” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” CHICAGO is set in the Wild Mid-West during the bawdy, boozy, pre-code Prohibition ‘20’s.” CHICAGO ranks as one of the top five longest-running musicals on Broadway. 

Artistic Director Eric Inman’s use of space on the bandbox of a stage is by and large most adept: sets and actors appear and disappear almost by prestidigitation. However, the first number “All That Jazz”-- Fosse's signature piece—is clunky and crowded, and the final duet number—always reserved for flash and dance and leave-‘em-wantin’-more—doesn’t measure up to the "Razzle Dazzle" that immediately precedes it or to the show-stopper from the movie. But in between, he keeps it coming at you. 

The production follows a Vaudevillian theme—the plot is from a true story of two female murderesses who were aspiring Vaudevillians—and Inman slips in influences from the movie and little touches of 1920’s lore via movie star faces and tabloids. Inman adds flavor by encouraging the Chicago accent with that flat “a.” 

Kerry Wininger delivers Roxie Hart as a narcissistic vixen, part Betty Boop, part Raggedy Annie, part sociopath. The package she delivers comes in Technicolor with red curls and blue-green luminescent eyes, and she pops retorts reminiscent of Jean Harlow. Wininger’s acting is honest and reactive to the turns of Roxie’s twisted life, and over-the-top when it’s called for. Her dancing is compact, controlled, and professional, and she sustains the notes while being tossed about by well-muscled boy-toys. 

Nicole Helfer gives us Velma Kelly as a silky, slinky, flouncy, snide blonde sex-bomb skilled in acrobatics and seduction. Ms. Helfer been a favorite and multiple prize nominee, but in this one she seems a little cautious in her dancing—though her abilities and moves are breathtakingly agile— and, while she shows off her impressive belt and a high range when stationary, she backs off when she moves so we occasionally lose words and notes. Like her counterpart, her character is wholly unrepentant and driven by ambition, but Velma is self-righteously justified, as are the other black widows on murderess’s row in the rousing ensemble, “He Had It Comin’” 

“First Class” is the phrase that comes to mind regarding Mark Farrell’s Billy Flynn. A charismatic mover-and-shaker, half P. T. Barnum, half Clarence Darrow, the man can tap, sing while dancing, not rely on the amplification, and convince you he’s not acting, and that’s what we want in a musical. 

The supporting cast is talented if a little raw, and they dance well together; the choreography from La Tonya Watts, who just got in from NYC, is remarkable, and there is a surprise transformation by I. Tyrell in a dual role in which extraordinary range and masterful chameleon-like disguise is revealed. 

The John C. Reilly film role of the milquetoast, dependent husband of Roxie gets raucous laughs through the character acting of Shaun Carroll who sings the memorable “Mr. Cellophane” with an effective mime-like choreography and whose comic self- effacement brings down the house. 

Matron “Mama” Thorton (Queen Latifah in the movie) is played by Michelle Ianrio, who has all the moves and all the notes, but could have used an edge instead of “sweet-hearting” her character. Puzzlingly, she speaks and sings in different dialects, and was a little weak on “When You’re Good to Momma”—the character’s keynote song—positioned high on the scaffold instead of “in gen pop.” But she shows her singing off well in Act Two. 

The musical direction of Rachel Robinson is exceptional, and the band, which we can see through the “inner below,” serves the singers flawlessly. 

The graciousness and welcome that the “front of house” gives one makes the theatre experience ever so much more pleasant. Let me recommend this charming cabaret theatre in this small East Bay-side working-class town, one of the oldest towns in Alta California. It’s worth the trip, which is about half an hour from Oakland/Berkeley. It has table service, interesting snacking comestibles and a full range of potables served by an accommodating, pleasant wait-staff. You sit up high around your cabaret table, and there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house, though toward the end of the second act one’s derriere gets a tad grumpy from sitting on the high, padded chairs. 

But hurry, because last Friday and Saturday were sold out, and, though extended, CHICAGO toddles out on June 18.  

CHICAGO--music by John Kander, words Fred Ebb, book by Ebb and Bob Fosse. 

Extended through June 18
Playing at the Willows Theatre Cabaret, Campbell Theatre, 636 Ward St., Martinez 

Directed by Eric Inman, musical direction Rachel Robinson, choreography by La Tonya Watts, lighting by Danny Maher, sound by Reid McCann, costumes Sarah Rozette. 

WITH: Jenny Angell, Joseph Brunicardi, Shaun Carroll*, Maggie Connard, Mark Farrell*, Maggie Franks, Giuliana Harris, Nicole Helfer, Michele Ianrio, Elizabeth Palmer*, Jack Sale, Adria Swan, I. Tyrelle, James Udom, Kerry Wininger  


John A. McMullen II is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, holds an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in directing, and has been reviewing for the Berkeley Daily Planet since April of 2010. EJ Dunne edits.