In this 'Chicago,' the sin seems less deliciously sinful

Justin Guarini as defense attorney Billy Flynn with Samantha Shepherd (left) and Jocelyn Isaacs. The Media Theatre production of the hardy perennial is too workmanlike and Guarini, though he has the requisite slickness for his part, lacks the weight.
Justin Guarini as defense attorney Billy Flynn with Samantha Shepherd (left) and Jocelyn Isaacs. The Media Theatre production of the hardy perennial is too workmanlike and Guarini, though he has the requisite slickness for his part, lacks the weight. (MAURA McCONNELL)
Posted: October 04, 2011

There are a lot of years between Roxie Hart and Casey Anthony, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Chicago, that musical vaudeville starring sex, murder, sexy murderesses and publicity, captivating audiences in one form or another since 1926, arrives at Media Theatre in 2011. It was topical in 1975, with director/choreographer Bob Fosse, composer John Kander, and lyricist Fred Ebb at its helm, and again when director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Ann Reinking revived it in 1996. The show still goes on; it's Broadway's longest-running musical revival. Moral degeneracy never goes out of style.

With young talent such as Barrymore-winning actor Jennie Eisenhower as director, and Jenn Rose (The Great American Trailer Park Musical) as choreographer, you'd think excitement wouldn't be a problem here. But everything's too workmanlike, and when you're selling sex, each finger snap and hip thrust ought to make you want to join in, not punch out.

Of course, Eisenhower and Rose are not on that billboard peering over I-95. Since the vicissitudes of fame are Chicago's currency, Doylestown native and University of the Arts alum Justin Guarini, runner-up in American Idol's first season, must be particularly qualified to play Billy Flynn, criminal defense attorney and star media manipulator, right? Not entirely.

Guarini brings Flynn's slickness, but not the weight that should keep him planted in the center of what ought to be a powerful triumvirate with Hillary Elliott's Velma and Alicia Jayne Kelly's Roxie. Erica Hoelscher's costuming earns part of the blame; Guarini's plain gray suit - surrounded by a sea of black bustiers and white feather fans - fades into the background instead of making a statement. However, all three performers are inconsistent. Guarini comes closest to a triple threat, and, with Kelly, commandeers the press conference-cum-ventriloquist-act number "They Both Reached for the Gun." But the production ultimately sags where it ought to slither.

While Elliott can nail a high kick, she runs out of steam halfway through a series of them. She has the cast's most caustic delivery and enthusiasm, but strains when singing the show-opening "All That Jazz." Kelly has the look: petite, curvy, with a mop of red curls and a floozy's nasal whine, a visual and audio counterpoint to her rival Velma's long, leggy physique, pin-straight bob, and time-worn delivery. But again, while Kelly's acting hits, she underperforms her songs.

This production's highlights keep it just to the right of dull, but only just, and considering its content and choreographic bloodline, plus the cast's potential, the results are almost, well, criminal.


Chicago

Through Nov. 6 at Media Theatre, 104 E. State St., Media. Tickets: $27-$49. 610-819-0100 orwww.MediaTheatre.org.


Follow Wendy Rosenfield on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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