Though the Massman Theatre stage might be smaller than a typical stage used for a show as big as Chicago, director Shaya Mulcahy and producers Manuel Prieto and Patrick Phillips manage to make the space work for student run production.
The Independent Student Production was brought to life by Cardinal Theatre Productions, an organization founded and managed by students.
In the musical, the orchestra proves itself right away as being perfectly capable of following the intricate score with great accuracy and intensity. Large numbers such as “We Both Reached for the Gun,” which includes extreme tempo changes, are no problem for the pros in the pit, who, aside from the percussionist, are spread out on an elevated platform hanging above the action upstage.
The stage itself, however, is not elevated — it leaves the front row of the audience on the same level as the actors. The acting space noticeably lacks many other significant levels, but the small cast uses vivid movements and clever blocking — to avoid too many actors from standing or sitting at the same height; this markedly provides much-needed variation to enhance the show’s aesthetic appeal.
Not only are the lead actors generally well-rounded and dynamic, but the talent also extends into the chorus members. In group numbers such as the final courtroom scene and “Velma Takes the Stage,” the actors on the margins of the scene often seize more attention than those singing the solos — but in a good way, of course.
Freshmen ensemble members Kevin Paley and Henry Boyd are particularly pleasing to watch in the background of a scene. Their ability to stay focused on their performances at times when the leads naturally attract the audience’s attention — a task more difficult than one might think — creates very special moments in which everyone on stage seems completely drawn into the world of the story. This commitment really lets viewers completely immerse themselves in the production.
At the end of the day, though, it is the leads that shine. Ian Shain, who plays the innocently dimwitted Amos, gives his character an unexpected complexity. He moves between innocently stammering with big eyes and rounded shoulders to shouting angrily and excitedly with rapid, violent gestures — all within his classic musical theatre number, “Mr. Cellophane.” Shain’s versatility nurtures his character’s changing mental state and provides for a genuine performance.
The character of Amos, however, only succeeds because of the opposing force that is his wife, Roxie, fashionably portrayed by Lexie Lowell. Though the duo’s comedically imbalanced relationship has the tendency to get lost in the fast-paced storyline, thanks to the pair’s mastery-level acting they were able to make it work.
But where the production excels in performance, it lacks in some areas of production design. Costumes are kept to a bare minimum, with most of the actors wearing the same outfit when portraying different characters. Set pieces are also sparse; a table was the largest prop onstage.
Nevertheless, the simplicity of the stage design does not detract from the show’s effectiveness in maintaining its imaginative universe, where lawyers and murderers can sing and dance with impressive joviality, as they do in the twisted courtroom extravaganza “Razzle Dazzle.”
Such creativity is everywhere in the acclaimed script of Chicago, which is structured as a story told within the frame of a vaudeville-esque nightclub performance and therefore demands that a narrator introduce certain songs. This production made the interesting choice of having the conductor of the orchestra be the narrator. This unique decision enhances the realism of the event by further intertwining reality with the surrealism of the show.
And the script offers opportunities for ensemble members to shine: Another standout chorus member is the talented vocalist Nisha Balsara, who plays the Hungarian murderess in the girls’ ensemble number “Cell Block Tango.” Her voice is clear and strong in her singing and her dialogue, which is also performed in fluent Hungarian. Making full use of the talents of its student creators, the production also utilizes Balsara’s choreography skills in her dance number.
The rest of the cast does a great job as well. Will McGarey performs a greedy Billy Flynn much like a suave Don Draper would in his opening striptease “All I Care About.” He croons his way through the night and contributes an excellent complement to his female co-stars’ raspy jazz singing.
Another of these wonderful belters is Meghan Mahowald, who plays Mama, the prison matriarch. Mahowald’s performance refreshes with a deeply resonating voice that contrasts with her female counterparts.
The dimly-lit number “Roxie” stands as an example of all of the best aspects of the production. Lowell’s feisty Roxie character embodies the spirit of the show, and the wonderful male ensemble carries her to full fruition with their winning smiles, quick feet and truly spectacular voices.
Chicago runs through the weekend, and rush tickets are available at the door.