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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Fair
The Daily

THEATER

Chicago presents a tuneful indictment of sensationalism at Overture Center

It is no wonder that Chicago continues to play to packed houses.
Credit:Paul Kolnik
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Overture Center kicked off its Broadway Series with a solid and sexy production of Chicago (through Oct. 6), the glitzy celebration of media frenzies, sensational trials, and the public's insatiable appetite for tawdry crime. As the well-connected Matron "Mama" Morton remarks astutely in the first act of the award-winning musical, "Murder is a form of entertainment."

Filled with the songs of Kander and Ebb, and brought to life by the Bob Fosse-inspired choreography, the story revolves around two women in jail for salacious crimes: shooting their lovers in fits of jealous rage. As the play opens, imprisoned ex-vaudeville performer Velma Kelly plans her triumphant return to the stage, fueled by the publicity surrounding her case. She is quickly upstaged by jailhouse newcomer Roxie Hart, whose murder charge makes her a media darling and tabloid star.

The mood of the 1920s era melodrama turned music-hall revue is set immediately with the iconic opening number "All That Jazz." Velma (Terra C. MacLeod) leads more than a dozen supple and sensuous chorus members across the stage, fingers snapping, shoulders rolling and hips undulating. Executed with equal parts precision and passion, the strong dance numbers are made even more provocative by the performers' costumes, including barely-there mesh tops, fishnet stockings, bustiers, thongs and bikinis, all in black.

Running continuously since 1996, the Chicago revival on Broadway has featured a rotating cast of celebrities with the star power to sell tickets, including Jerry Springer and Brooke Shields. Similarly, this national tour boasts TV personalities such as John O'Hurley (Seinfeld, Dancing with the Stars), who plays the slick lawyer Billy Flynn.

Equally enchanting are the female leads, Paige Davis (Trading Spaces) and MacLeod. Both strong dancers, but Davis has more emotional ground to cover as Roxie, journeying from disenchanted wife, to overnight criminal sensation, to exonerated has-been. Though many of her scenes rely on exaggerated stereotypes, the actress allows moments of real emotion peek through. Similarly, MacLeod gives Velma a tough, weathered and worldly exterior, yet the audience can sense her desperation when she begs Roxie to join her for a sister act in "I Can't Do It Alone."

In lieu of a realistic set, the show is performed with just a few chairs in front of a bandstand that showcases the 13-piece orchestra. Changes in scene are illustrated with well-placed props, such as giant feather fans, reporters' notebooks, and cameras with flashbulbs. Ladders that unfold from the edges of the proscenium provide dramatic entrances.

In an era when American audiences can revel in 24-hour news coverage of sensational trials, eavesdrop on the scandalous "Real Housewives," and gawk at the antics of Anna Nicole Smith (whose misadventures are featured in an opera, playing now in New York) it is no wonder that Chicago continues to play to packed houses, on Broadway and across the country. It may be a tuneful indictment of our sensational culture, but we just can't get enough of it.

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