Kristen Sandler appears as Velma Kelly in 'Chicago' at Jefferson Performing Arts Center

Contributed photo by Joshua Frederick

In 1975, two iconic musicals opened on Broadway at virtually the same time. The warmhearted “A Chorus Line” upstaged the darkly cynical “Chicago” in every possible way. Now, nearly 50 years later, “A Chorus Line” seems cheesy and sentimental while “Chicago,” as exemplified by the solidly entertaining production by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, has achieved legendary status as a classic destined to wow audiences for decades to come.

Director Kenneth Beck takes his cue from the stripped-down, cabaret-style 1996 revival of this crowd-pleasing showstopper replete with John Kander’s dazzling toe-tapping melodies, Fred Ebb’s scabrous, witty lyrics and Bob Fosse’s sexy dance moves (although Beck’s choreography is tamped down to a PG rating).

“Chicago” is based on actual cases in the roaring jazz-age 1920s when the press and public became fascinated by the idea of murders committed by women.

Chorus girl Roxie Hart (Vanessa Van Vrancken), married to a chump named Amos (Sean Riley), kills her straying lover and is sent to jail where she meets the predatory matron Mama Morton (Kate Arthurs-Goldberg) and conniving vaudeville star Velma Kelly (Kristen Sandler), famous for the double murder of her sister and boyfriend.

Both girls hire the debonair, master manipulator of the press and thoroughly corruptible lawyer Billy Flynn (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) to plead their cases, aiming to parlay their trials not only into not-guilty verdicts but also criminal celebrity showbiz careers.

With her mop of red Bernadette Peters curls, NOCCA grad Van Vrancken sings and dances up a storm, as she puts her individual signature on the familiar part of Roxie.  

Sandler’s high kicking Velma is a bit of a stretch — more little girl pixie than hard-core, round-the-block intimidator. Van Vrancken's and Sandler's performances left me thinking more than once it might be interesting if they switched roles.

With his booming megawatt smile, Sullivan couldn’t be having more fun playing the charismatic, money-motivated lawyer. His gangbusters rendition of “All I Care About (is love)” knocks it out of the park although the renowned “Razzle Dazzle” is a tad lackluster.

The solos – including Arthurs-Goldbergs’ ballsy, robust “When You’re Good to Mama,” Hart’s hapless “Mr. Cellophane,” and the gender-bending gossip columnist Mary Sunshine’s (D Arnold), operatic “A Little Bit of Good” — all excel, but the duets such as “My Own Best Friend” and “Nowadays,” suffer from a tepid chemistry between the players.

Joshua Frederick’s set design makes excellent use of the JPAS's large performance space by placing the splendid orchestra conducted by the multitalented Alan Payne upstage, thereby making the band a fun part of the action. Frederick’s only mistake is sliding in unnecessary set pieces which bring the action to a regrettable standstill.

So, how could such a coldly cynical musical which boldly glamorizes bad behavior be such a blissful, hypnotic hit? Why do we find ourselves rooting for deceit over decency? Could it be that the show plays to our pathological obsession with celebrity worship and a corrupt justice system? Or are we hapless dupes content with the pleasure of spectacular entertainment?



WHEN: Through Oct. 15

WHERE: Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive, Metairie

TICKETS: $40-$60

INFO: (504) 885-2000; www.jpas.org

Bruce Burgun is a retired theater professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.