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Half & Half Productions' immersive staging of the Kander & Ebb musical keeps the joint jumpin' for a full two hours

Reviewed by Adam Roberts, Fri., May 30, 2014

Shimmyin' 'til their garters break: (l-r) Kimberley Wilson, Kristi Brawner, Leslie Hethcox, Andie Haddad, and Rachel Haney-Butler
Shimmyin' 'til their garters break: (l-r) Kimberley Wilson, Kristi Brawner, Leslie Hethcox, Andie Haddad, and Rachel Haney-Butler
Courtesy of Brett Falls

Maggie Mae's Gibson Lounge, 323 E. Sixth
www.halfandhalfproductions.org
Through June 1
Running time: 2 hr.

From the moment you enter Maggie Mae's Gibson Lounge, which Half & Half Productions has commandeered for its production of Chicago, you know you're in for a unique evening of theatre. This is no conventional proscenium setup; you're plunged into a world of immersive staging, where performers interact with you, choreo-graphy emerges around you, and you're made to feel very much a part of all the action. Co-directors/producers M. Scott Tatum and Julianna Wright have attended to many a detail in their use of this environment, leaving no nook, cranny, or bar top unexplored.

The evening starts with quite a bang – and not just the one from the gun of wannabe headliner Roxie as she shoots her lover at the end of iconic opener "All That Jazz." The real explosion that kicks off the show comes courtesy of Chicago's band, blowin' the blues of Kander and Ebb's score under the top-notch direction of John VanderGheynst, who triples as musical director, conductor, and trumpeter. Half & Half deserves kudos for its investment in such a high-caliber lineup of musicians – not an inexpensive proposition, especially for a young production company, but money very well spent. Add to this the production's well-executed (if over-amplified) sound design, and you've got a joint that's jumpin' throughout the entire two hours.

One of the most effective moments from choreographer Brazie Mata Adamez serves to open the show, with a wonderfully staged reveal of Velma – portrayed strikingly by Austin veteran Leslie Hollingsworth – on the Gibson's stairs, establishing the Fosse-fied undercurrents that will drive the dance vocabulary throughout the evening. The space doesn't provide a lot of room to execute choreography, which occasionally results in staging that feels cramped; but Adamez and her dancers are to be lauded for their no-holds-barred delivery – there's no timidity here.

This Chicago boasts many impressive aspects, but one of its jazziest is in the atypical experience you're offered as a theatergoer. A bartender circulates throughout the audience during the show, ensuring that everyone's "juice" is flowing freely (at additional cost, as one would expect). Though the design is quite minimalist in terms of the stage set, Wright and Tatum expand the playing area to include the entire lounge and so create their set from what is essentially a found space. It's a production that pays homage to both creativity and elbow grease, and also spends its budget in smart places.

The run has sold out, but word on the street is an encore may be in the cards, so be sure to check online before rouging your knees, starting the car, and heading down to the whoopee spot on Trinity for an evening that some might call "to die for."

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