“Has the whole world gone low-brow?”
Things may not be what they used to be, but for this old Broadway production, some things never change. Last week, the Boston College Theatre Department and Robsham Theater Arts Center completed their five-day run of Chicago. The presentation of this iconic musical stars BC’s own performing arts students and was directed by BC alum Michelle Miller ’98.
Chicago reveals the underlying truth of our society’s obsession with violence and aggression. Vaudeville star Velma Kelly (Taylor Tranfaglia, MCAS ’18) murders her husband and Chicago’s slickest lawyer, Billy Flynn (Tristan Horan, MCAS ’21), is set to defend her. But when Roxie Hart (Elizabeth Koennecke, MCAS ’19) also winds up in jail, Flynn takes on her case as well—turning her into a criminal celebrity in the papers. As each woman frantically pursues her own fame, the public (and the actual audience) cheers them on and revels in their exploits. As Miller tells us in the director’s note, “Chicago pulls the curtain back on what it is we truly value as audience members who are willing to cheer for the villain, merely pity the saint, and disregard the truly innocent.”
Robsham’s stage was impressively set in the musical’s burlesque theme, with colored lights, an elevated band, steel jail cells, and a central Broadway-style sign that read “Chicago.” The lighting throughout the show was executed wonderfully, from the various spotlights that echoed the fame the characters were striving for, to the colorful display of a snappy number. Real beds were rolled in for bedroom scenes, Flynn’s office was recreated, and even a full courtroom was produced—gavel and all.
The band stayed on cue with the sound effects for the action and performed jazz numbers exceptionally well, though fluctuated in in volume—at times, the band overpowered the vocalists, while at others, it was too soft. The singing was also on par, but it was the choreography that was really striking. The effort that was put into their rehearsals was evident when the cast was flailing about in complete synchronicity, pulling off cartwheels and splits. During Flynn’s introduction around the song “All I Care About Is Love,” the ensemble women formed a seamless moving ring around Flynn with feather fans, eliciting applause from the audience mid-scene. When Roxie tries to convince her husband to pay her lawyer fees, two members of the cast physically embody the conversation in an impressive tap dance.
Highlights from the cast included Horan’s wonderful portrayal of Billy Flynn. Like his character, Horan was confident and quick on his feet—fully in sync with the crowd. He knew how to extract laughter at just the right times, seemed to be in complete control of his character. But perhaps the best performance of the show, ironically coming from the most neglected character in the musical, was that of Grant Whitney, MCAS ’21, as Amos. Whitney fully embodied the innocence and harmlessness of Amos, allowing himself to get pushed around, literally, all over the stage. Amos is the only character in Chicago whose motives are entirely pure and selfless. His is the only role that conveys some semblance of morality, and yet he is “Mr. Cellophane,” a guy so ordinary and helpless that no one notices him. Chicago seems to show us that nice guys don’t win in the real world. Sometimes they get dumped and the Billy Flynns of the world get it all.
The emcee of the show prefaced Roxie and Velma’s duet “My Own Best Friend” as a performance of “unrelenting determination and unmitigated ego,” a sentiment which captures the whole show. Miller tells us in the director’s note how “even the most depraved and dangerous criminals celebrate themselves as the star of their own story, worthy of elaborate production numbers and fawning fans.” And fans there were—in the show itself and in the audience.
Chicago’s scathing satire shows audiences how this publicity can truly subvert justice. Though we acknowledge show business, and actual crime, as dirty and sleazy, we can’t get over its entertainment. Chicago first appeared in the 1920s, when the media was tainted with the introduction of yellow journalism in which truth was sacrificed for eye-catching headlines and sensationalism.
But how far have we progressed from this? Chicago remains the second longest-running musical in Broadway history because of its continued application to the present day. The media continues to make celebrities of criminals, while we continue to devour controversy. And while Velma and Roxie carry out their decadent, egotistical fantasies during the show, we laugh and clap along. The show effectively makes the audience a character in the play—the more we find its debauchery seductive and enjoyable, the more we prove its point. But at least we’re having fun.
Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks