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Chelsea Preston as Roxie Hart in Chicago.Cylla von Tiedemann

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  • Title: Chicago
  • Book: Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
  • Music and lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb
  • Director: Donna Feore
  • Actors: Chelsea Preston, Jennifer Rider-Shaw
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 30, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks required until at least June 21; reduced-capacity performance available

Critic’s Pick

Chicago’s louche lawyer Billy Flynn’s famous credo is “give ‘em the old razzle-dazzle” – and, for her new production of the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical about crime and celebrity at the Stratford Festival, director and choreographer Donna Feore has decided to follow that legal counsel to the letter.

In a splendiferous spectacle staged in the Festival Theatre, Feore blinds her audience with sequins and sex appeal – and has her dancers doing the splits frequently and, whenever possible, while being held up in the air and upside down.

Feore’s put together a hyper-fit cohort of lady criminals to unleash homicidally high kicks – and found a mass of men to flood the stage athletically at regular intervals and get mowed down by these murderesses. She crafts act after act with lots of flash in it – and the reaction, on opening night, was indeed passionate.

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Donna Feore's production of Chicago is running at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont., until Oct. 30.David Hou

This is not legendary choreographer Bob Fosse’s seductive, come-to-me approach to the show (the book of which he co-wrote with Ebb). Or, for that matter, that of original star Ann Reinking when she created choreography that followed in Fosse’s footsteps for the 1996 Broadway revival (which is still running in New York – and just concluded a stint starring Pamela Anderson).

Fosse compelled your attention with a flip of a wrist; Feore, by contrast, guns for yours with backflips.

Her in-your-face, look-at-me production, however, might just be the right one for now, a time when the fame-hungry can post their own thirst traps on Instagram and TikTok and don’t need to manipulate the press to become a star.

Chicago, which was turned into an Oscar-winning movie in 2002, follows frustrated chorine Roxie Hart (Chelsea Preston) on her Jazz Age journey through a corrupt American justice system after she shoots her lover dead.

Under the tutelage of prison matron Mama Morton (a splendidly arch Sandra Caldwell) and fellow inmate Velma Kelly (Jennifer Rider-Shaw), Roxie learns how to use her feminine wiles to wiggle out of a guilty verdict and toward media-circus-fuelled celebrity.

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The musical follows frustrated chorine Roxie Hart on her Jazz Age journey through a corrupt American justice system after she shoots her lover dead.David Hou

Preston (whose pronouns are they/she) is downright magnetic in the role – giving a satirically sexy, and often subversive performance. Their Roxie seems not just hungry for fame, but utterly ravenous for it. The increasingly frightening fierceness in their expression made me think of the John Updike line: “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.”

Rider-Shaw, somehow now in her 12th season at Stratford, has graduated from ingenues and brings an appropriate level of grizzle to the vaudevillian Velma (who toured in a sister act until she killed her sister). She and Preston make a fine double-act and sometimes even seem like doppelgangers in Dana Osborne’s costuming (which is wonderful for the women, but a bit too Guys and Dolls for the men).

There are a couple of moments in Feore’s production where showbiz does swallow the story. Ironically, both the big numbers involving Flynn – played by a surprisingly understated Dan Chameroy – get flummoxed by her flim-flam. They Both Reached for the Gun and Razzle Dazzle’s splashy choreography leave you clapping but then wondering: Wait, what was that song about?

Steve Ross playing Amos Hart, Roxie’s long-suffering husband, is the only one really allowed to command the stage with stillness in his sweet and funny Mr. Cellophane number.

Set in the 1920s, Chicago was written in the 1970s and only really became a megahit when it was revived in the 1990s on Broadway. That latter decade, the era of the O.J. Simpson and Lorena Bobbitt trials and the superficial tabloid coverage of both, feels like its spiritual home.

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Set in the 1920s, Chicago was written in the 1970s and only really became a megahit when it was revived in the 1990s on Broadway.David Hou

The celebrity trial du jour, of course, has been Johnny Depp’s livestreamed libel suit against Amber Heard. When Velma practises crying on the stand, I couldn’t help but think of the memes that made Heard out to be shedding crocodile tears that inundated social media in the past month.

Chicago revels too much in its female anti-heroes and their killing of philanderers and lazy bums to seem anti-woman, however. “He had it coming,” the female cellmates sing in Cell Block Tango – a song that flips victim blaming on its head.

There’s no doubt the Kander and Ebb musical is out of sync with the times – with its cartoonish depiction of mass shootings, and its jealous female killers lying about things like domestic abuse to a credulous press to make money. Whether that gives Chicago renewed edge or reveals its cynicism to be reactionary will be in the razzle-dazzled eye of the beholder.

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