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THEATER REVIEW: “Chicago”

A cocktail waitress in a short red number cruises the theater, ready to bring you a drink. There’s a jail cell in the corner, and instructions on your table about arresting your friends and leaving them there until they can make bail (the proceeds go to Make-A-Wish San Diego). A Chicago cop lounges against one wall.

A half-hour before curtain, three black women in shiny black dresses – Brittney Caldwell, Kimberly Miller and Eboni Muse – entertain with song, singly and as a trio.

It’s atmosphere for Coronado Playhouse’s mounting of the beloved 1975 musical about those merry murderesses of “Chicago,” playing through Feb. 23 and directed by Chrissy Burns.

“Chicago” is based on a play by journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins, who covered the trials of many of these women in the 1920s. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Frank Ebb and a book by Ebb and dance legend Bob Fosse, it’s no surprise that it’s is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history (though “A Chorus Line,” which also opened in 1975, beat it out at the Tonys).

This “re-imagined” version features the aforementioned trio serving as masters of ceremony, occasional tap dances by Jessica Stamper, two terrific “cirque performers” (Chris Borrero and Stephanie Salo) who can really pole dance, and video projections of cast and crew in and outside the building.

As entertaining as these new elements are, you’ve come to hear the story of Roxie Hart (Allison Boettcher), newly arrested for the murder of her lover, her husband Amos (Jacob Alexander Davis), Matron “Mama” Morton (Tori Roze) and star prisoner (until Roxie arrives) Velma Kelly (Meredith Russo).

And let’s not forget everybody’s favorite lawyer Billy Flynn (David Guthrie), worth every nickel (and he wants a lot of ‘em) because he’s never lost a case. Guthrie’s Billy seems to be channeling Jerry Orbach, who originated the role on Broadway. Guthrie even looks a little like Orbach, but mainly he’s got the commanding attitude, deep voice and gift of gab that leave little question why Billy wins every time.

SDSU grad Boettcher’s Roxie is pretty and fragile-looking (with that steel magnolia thing going on underneath). She’s also a skilled performer. She rocks Roxie and has poor husband Amos – and the audience – wrapped around her little finger.

Russo’s Velma amuses as she falls from the cocky heights of being inmate #1 to both “Mama” Morton and Billy to playing second fiddle to that little upstart Roxie, even in the minds of the all-important press.

It’s difficult not to picture Sophie Tucker or Queen Latifah as “Mama” Morton, but Roze shows that she’s got the goods as well, in attitude, style and lung power.

Davis’ Amos is the picture of a cheated-on husband who can’t help loving his bad-girl wife. This part can be played for pathos or, as Davis does, for its vaudeville value. I prefer pathos, but won’t fault Davis, a fine singing actor, for making the other choice.

Set designer Frank Stangler has opted for a minimalist but functional set, a sort of frame with stairs and a couple of poles, which can be moved back when dance space is required. It’s especially effective for silhouette lighting. The show’s lighting is by Chad Oakley and Xavier Luevano.

Jennifer Solomon-Rubio’s choreography is sexy, energetic and athletic, with a definite Fosse influence.

Jacob Koehnen and Matt Warburton do a find job with the sound, and Alex and Pat John’s costumes are excellent.

Chris Tweedy’s musical direction (and his solo sound effects on one number) are first-rate, as is the eight-member band, directed by Patrick Marion.

The theater has gone all out for this show. Even the program is period appropriate.

If you’re looking for solid entertainment, you’ll find it in “Chicago.”

The details

“Chicago” plays through Feb. 23 at Coronado Playhouse, 1835 Strand Way, Coronado.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm Pre-show 30 minutes before curtain.

Tickets: (619) 435-4856 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.