A cast of familiar faces conjures Kander and Ebb's Jazz Age classic in an entertaining way

Sara Burke shakes it up as Roxie Hart. (photo by Jessica Hughes)

Booze, jazz, and speakeasies hold an allure all their own, but throw Bob Fosse into the mix and you know you've taken a trip to Chicago. Any lover of musicals is likely to know the Kander & Ebb sensation, and even those who don't fall into this category probably have some familiarity with Rob Marshall's 2002 film version, which boasts an all-star cast and multiple Academy Awards. For musical neophytes and aficionados alike, Chicago is seen as a classic, and staging such a well-known work comes with its set of difficulties. Austin Playhouse's production boasts a talented group of familiar Austin faces, and though the evening is entertaining overall, a bit more technical flair and tightening up would give this show the extra oomph it needs.

The story tracks aspiring jazz baby Roxie Hart, who has been imprisoned for murdering Fred Casely, with whom she was having an affair. Sara Burke gives an excellent turn in this role, alternately bringing out Roxie's innocent and manipulative characteristics. Like her character, Burke is a star on the rise, stealing the show in every production I've seen her in.

Once in prison, Roxie meets her idol, fellow jazz performer Velma Kelly, who was also recently convicted of murder. Rachel James tackles the role, and though she has a beautiful singing voice, she does not always exude the confidence and charisma that's integral to Velma's character. That's not to say James is a bad performer, just that her sometimes demure performance might work better in the role of Roxie. Had James and Burke switched roles, I believe the production would have been more believable overall.

Huck Huckaby, on the other hand, is solidly cast as the deviant "silver-tongued prince of the courtroom," Roxie's defense attorney Billy Flynn. He maintains a strong stage presence and seems to enjoy himself in the role while making it clear that Flynn's only interest – apart from money – is himself.

Somewhat ironically, one of the performers who commands the most attention plays the character who repeatedly claims to be overlooked. As Roxie's husband Amos, Scott Shipman gives a funny and delightful turn, as well as an impressive rendition of "Mister Cellophane."

Though the execution of Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique's choreography could use some tightening to really exude that Fosse flair, the members of the chorus do a nice job emoting and reacting to the action. Of particular note is the always fabulous Molly Karrasch, whose hilarious and unique delivery of her monologue in "Cell Block Tango" is not to be missed. Claire Grasso also gives a delightful performance as the sharp-tongued newest murderer on the block, Go-to-Hell Kitty.

Lyn Koenning's musical direction and Buffy Manners' costumes punch up the razzle-dazzle and bring the audience back to the Jazz Age. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Desiderio Roybal's set design or Don Day's lighting, both of which are far too minimalistic for a play that requires a high level of showmanship. Despite these few technical shortcomings, this cast's hard work and talent shines through, delivering a solid production of this beloved musical.


Austin Playhouse at Highland Mall, 6001 Airport, 512/476-0084
Through June 28
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

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Austin Playhouse, Sara Burke, Rachel James, Huck Huckaby, Scott Shipman, Molly Karrasch, Claire Grasso, Buffy Manners, Lyn Koenning, Rocker Verastique, Danny Herman, Don Day, Desiderio Roybal

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