Back when the musical, “Chicago,” first premiered on Broadway in 1975, it garnered mixed reviews from critics.
The plotline, in which two women turn actual murder into show business fame, was just too far-fetched. We as a society would never glorify people who do unscrupulous things for fame, right?
Enter 2019, where some of the most popular streaming television series are “The People v. OJ Simpson,” “The Act,” and “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” — and social-media influencers routinely do and say unsavory things for subscriptions and likes.
Since the revival version of “Chicago” burst onto Broadway in 1996, it’s become the longest-running American musical of all time (still playing in New York today).
Now Music Theatre Wichita is tackling the material again, after last producing the show in 2003 — shortly after the Oscar-winning movie adaptation was released.
It features Broadway guest stars Anne Horak and Ellyn Marie Marsh as the murderous leading ladies Roxie and Velma (respectively), and David Elder as the shyster lawyer Billy Flynn.
Director/choreographer Brian J. Marcum, who is returning for his second-straight show with MTW, said the show remains timely to this day.
“People want that celebrity no matter how they can get it,” Marcum said. “You would think we’ve evolved in 50 years, but we really haven’t.”
True, the characters in “Chicago” do some pretty unlikeable things — yet they’re still likeable.
“It’s just so funny, that dichotomy — we’re all doing horrible things to solely better ourselves, yet the audience is still on our side,” Marsh said. “It’s just like, ‘Oh, it’s fine, they’re so cute.’”
Marsh, who is taking a two-week break from the Broadway production, “Pretty Woman,” to play Velma in this show, actually contacted MTW’s producing artistic director Wayne Bryan about the role (usually it’s the other way around).
“This is for sure a dream role,” she said.
Horak (playing the other female lead, Roxie) is a familiar face at MTW, previously playing Elle in “Legally Blonde,” Laurey in “Oklahoma!,” Natalie in “All Shook Up,” Billie in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and, most recently, Nellie in the “South Pacific in Concert” collaboration with the Wichita and Omaha Symphony Orchestras.
She has also played the role of Roxie on Broadway.
“I just feel like she’s a lesson in tenacity — she will do anything to get what she wants,” Horak said.
The named roles are rounded out by a couple more MTW favorites — Timothy W. Robu as Amos and Altamiece Carolyn Cooper as “Mama” Morton. Serve Clivio is making his MTW debut as Mary Sunshine.
Cooper most recently appeared as Motormouth Maybelle in “Hairspray” in 2017.
She described her character in “Chicago” as “mixed with Motormouth Maybelle, mixed with a Queen Latifah, mixed with almost like a Billy Flynn.”
“She’s a very complex group of characters,” she said.
The original production of “Chicago” was a Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon affair (though Liza Minnelli notably also played the same role for a few months). It was a lavish musical — “not only did it have big scenery, but the characters changed clothes a lot,” said MTW’s Bryan.
The 1996 revival simplified the show tremendously, “and it seems to work better,” Bryan said.
“People seem to buy the characters and the story better without all the rigamarole,” he said.
MTW’s production also features lighting by Adam Honore, scenery by Jordan Slusher, and musical direction by Thomas W. Douglas (who will be on-stage for this production with 13 players in a bandstand
What: New production of the classic 1975 musical set in Jazz-age Chicago, skewering the criminal justice system.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, July 24-25; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, July 26-27; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, July 27-28; and 7 p.m. Sunday, July 28
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $25-$70, from the Century II box office, by phone at 316-265-3107, or online at www.mtwichita.org.
More information: Show is rated PG-13 for strong language and mature themes. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes. Children must be at least 5 years old to attend.