Lawrence Toppman

Davidson Community Players’ ‘Chicago’ has the old razzle-dazzle

Murderers Velma Kelly (Mindy Hudson, left) and Roxie Hart (Meredith Swanson) remind us that life is good for celebrities in “Chicago.”
Murderers Velma Kelly (Mindy Hudson, left) and Roxie Hart (Meredith Swanson) remind us that life is good for celebrities in “Chicago.” Bill Giduz

Now that the ongoing revival of “Chicago” is the second-longest running show in Broadway history (behind “Phantom”), few people recall that the 1975 original didn’t win a single Tony out of 11 nominations. Voters weren’t ready to embrace a musical about murderers who shot a husband, a sister and a lover, became celebrities and ended as well-paid vaudeville stars.

Even in the wake of the Watergate scandal, this attack on the American justice system and the populace H.L. Mencken called “the booboisie” made people uncomfortable. Much better, then, to celebrate “A Chorus Line,” which affirmed the hard-working ethos of unsung dancers.

Forty years on, Davidson Community Players has mounted “Chicago” as its big summer musical. It’s still dark, still heartless, and director Corey Mitchell (at the helm of his first show since winning a Tony himself for excellence in education) doesn’t let the cast soft-pedal their characters. Somewhere, original director-choreographer Bob Fosse wears a cynical smile.

Mitchell and choreographer Ashlyn Keller Sumner face the same dilemma as anyone who revives Fosse’s signature piece. Stray too far from his style, and audiences say, “I miss Fosse.” Too slavish an homage may evoke the response, “Oh, they’re just copying Fosse.”

This production carefully walks the line between these boundaries. Certain bits of staging come from the show I saw 40 years ago, if I remember rightly. But many touches don’t. An example: An ill-fated Hungarian (plaintive Arwen Varner-Howland), the only prisoner who might be innocent, sadly scrubs the floor at one edge of the stage as murderesses mill around, laughing; she’s a reminder that, however much the show jokes about hangings, lives remain at stake.

Two killers battle for our attention, as well as that of slick attorney Billy Flynn (Bill Caswell) and the media. Velma Kelly (Mindy Hudson) whacked her sister and husband, whom she caught in flagrante; Roxie Hart (Meredith Swanson) shot her lover as he was ending the relationship. None of the three earn sympathy – they’re not meant to – but all impress us with their shamelessness and instinct for self-preservation.

The voices complement each other well: Hudson’s smoky alto, Swanson’s faux-winsome soprano and Caswell’s ringing, shiny tenor reveal people who spend every moment wanting us to buy or believe something. (If Fosse had a philosophy, it’s that all the world’s a stage – or, perhaps, a circus. A soiled circus.)

The other two leads, prison matron Mama Morton (Nicole Watts) and hapless husband Amos Hart (John DeMicco), fit into this well-conceived design. Watts gives Morton a soulful voice in a soulless character; DeMicco makes Amos pitiable but so gullible he forfeits our empathy at last.

Davidson Community Players’ choruses tend to be well-drilled, and this one’s no exception. Tara Villa Keith leads the nine-piece onstage band, which adjusts well to the singers’ sounds; I haven’t heard a better community theater orchestra in a long time.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Chicago’

Davidson Community Players does the 1975 musical by Kander and Ebb and Fosse about two murderers who become celebrities in the 1920s.

WHEN: Through June 27 at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Also 2 p.m. June 27.

WHERE: Duke Family Performance Hall, Davidson College campus, 207 Faculty Drive.

RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes.

TICKETS: Advance: $24 ($22 seniors, $12 students). At the door: $27 ($25 seniors, $15 students).

DETAILS: 704-892-7953 or davidsoncommunityplayers.org.

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