With "Chicago," the fabulous Kander and Ebb musical, American Music Stage bids what should not be a fond farewell to the acoustically troubled Ernst Theatre in Annandale.
Beginning this fall, the troupe will perform at Paul VI High School in Fairfax. Even though it's only a high school stage, let's hope the sound there will be a major improvement so theatergoers never again have to suffer through a musical that sounds as though you're listening to it through wet tea bags.
American Music Stage seemed to have solved the problem in previous productions by installing its own system, but opening night for "Chicago" was an exercise in familiar frustration. Singers' voices were weakly pumped through a muddy audio system that is all bass and no treble, constantly leaks feedback and pumps the sound toward the audience with a nondirectional aural sense that makes it seem far away and disconnected from the performer. Any dialogue over music -- and there is plenty -- is completely incomprehensible, which puts a major damper on the show, obscuring performances.
Even without amplification, the roomy hall at Northern Virginia Community College adds an annoying, harsh echo to the otherwise great-sounding, swinging orchestra.
Conducted by Mary Jo Webster, the 15 musicians prominently sitting onstage smoothly and fully re-create the 1920s vaudeville-like and bluesy melodies and rhythms of John Kander and Fred Ebb's powerful score.
"Chicago" is probably familiar to many people now, thanks to the 2002 blockbuster, Academy Award-winning film. American Music Stage's production, directed by Steve West, is the 1997 Tony Award-winning version of "Chicago" that was a revival of the 1975 Broadway version made famous primarily by Bob Fosse's choreography.
But even the 1975 version was a remake of a show from 1926, a comedy written by a Chicago newspaper reporter named Maurine Watkins, who based it on her stories about two women accused of murder. It was an early example of a media feeding frenzy, captured in the sensational words that now open the musical: "You are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery. All those things we hold near and dear to our hearts."
American Music Stage choreographer Corene Gliba has preserved the feel of Fosse's idiosyncratic, pelvic-oriented movement and the famous "jazz hands" and bowler hats imagery, the ensemble moving gracefully about a stage unadorned except for the orchestra stand, a large staircase and a few odds and ends.
This production is unexpectedly dominated by Andy Izquierdo, as cynical lawyer Billy Flynn, who manipulates murderesses and media for his own moneyed ends. Izquierdo's performance is so strong, it seems this is his story.
Coaching man-killer Roxie Hart (played by Lori Staley) through her version of the murder in "We Both Reached for the Gun," he turns her into his puppet with exquisitely timed movement, exhilarating the audience. He dazzles and maybe even razzles, whatever that means, in "Razzle Dazzle." In "All I Care About," Izquierdo provides a jolt of energy and is rewarded by shrieks from female audience members.
Brenna Nielsen as Velma Kelly also has star moments, particularly with innovative dancing and evocative singing in her jailhouse lament, "I Can't Do It Alone." As Roxie's neglected husband, Amos, Ronn Wilson has one song, and he makes the most of it, capturing audience hearts with the forlorn "Mister Cellophane."
This production has great promise, and with two weekends to go, maybe that will be realized -- or, at least, heard.
"Chicago" continues through May 30 at the Ernst Theatre, Northern Virginia Community College, 8333 Little River Tpk., Annandale. Showtime is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees. For tickets and information, call 703-425-9280 or visit www.americanmusicstage.com.