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Modern Theater Spokane takes a giddy, rowdy and jazzy trip to ‘Chicago’

September 25, 2016 GMT

“Chicago” may be set in the roaring ’20s, but the ways it examines the tenuous link between crime and celebrity is probably always going to keep it relevant. It’s both an ode to and a cautionary tale about characters who yearn to be famous for all the wrong reasons, who aren’t opposed to committing a murder or two if it’ll get them a mention on the front page of the newspaper. If you see it at the Modern Theater Spokane, where it runs through Oct. 23, you’ll be reminded why it’s so beloved.

Perhaps the show’s timelessness has to do with the fact that it was inspired by true events. Written by John Kander and Fred Ebb and choreographed by Bob Fosse, “Chicago” is a musical adaptation of a 1927 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins; she, in turn, based her dark comedy of corruption and vanity on two young women whose murder trials she covered for the Chicago Tribune.

This may be a 40-year-old musical inspired by 90-year-old source material, but its observations about the hollowness of celebrity and the media’s mob mentality could just as easily be applied to conversations that are still ongoing.

As the show opens, Roxie Hart (Quinn Vaira), a self-described “dumb mechanic’s wife,” shoots her lover in a fit of jealous rage. After failing to convince her meek husband, Amos (Andy Meyers), to take the rap, Roxie is thrown into a prison that is populated almost exclusively by murderous women who feel their crimes were justified. The star, for lack of a better term, of the joint is vampy vaudevillian Velma Kelly (Angela Pierson), who killed her husband and sister when she discovered they were fooling around.

Enter Velma’s slick, devious attorney Billy Flynn (Martin Sanks), who decides to drop Velma and take on Roxie’s case exclusively. His plan is to butter up the local reporters, get her face plastered all over the papers and portray her as a martyr who was only acting in self defense when she pumped her boyfriend full of lead. Roxie has stars in her eyes and is eager to go along with the scheme, and Velma comes to realize that she can’t stay in the spotlight as a “solo act.”

But “Chicago” isn’t merely a straightforward tale of cutthroat competition. It’s presented as an emceed variety show – the Oscar-winning film adaptation depicted many of the biggest musical numbers as Roxie’s delusions – and that allows for a certain narrative freedom. What could have been a stiff period piece is instead a lithe, unpredictable satire, and its let’s-put-on-a-show conceit allows the writers to poke some fun at tired Broadway tropes.

The Modern’s production has been directed by Abbey Crawford, who has recently been at the helm of some of the theater’s edgier, more introspective musicals such as “Dogfight.” A trained cabaret singer, she’s an ideal match for this material, imbuing it with the rowdy jazziness it requires. She also has a keen eye and ear for talent, and the three actors she’s put at its center give the show a shot in the arm.

Vaira imbues Roxie Hart, one of the great leading female roles in all of theater, with the wide-eyed naïveté and unhinged lunacy of Judy Garland hopped up on bathtub gin. She’s a blast to watch. So is Pierson, who also choreographed the show and has given herself the most exhaustive dance moves; that she’s still able to make Velma such an imposing presence is a feat. As Flynn, Sanks practically drips with self-satisfied smarm, even when he’s assuring us that love is really the only thing he cares about.

The ensemble and supporting cast are also strong: Jesi Be is both wicked and warm as prison matron Mama Morton, Meyers is hilariously pitiable as the immanently forgettable Amos (his final exit gets one of the show’s biggest laughs) and Joshua Fox is very funny donning drag to play sensationalistic gossip columnist Mary Sunshine.

“Chicago” rightfully holds a place among the most revered musicals of all time, but I had forgotten just how many exemplary Kander and Ebb songs it contains. The first act kicks off with a machine gun barrage of classic showtunes – “All That Jazz,” “Funny Honey,” “Cell Block Tango,” “When You’re Good to Mama” – and “We Both Reached for the Gun,” “Mr. Cellophane,” “Razzle Dazzle” and “Roxie” are all standouts.

But a production can only coast so far on a soundtrack alone, and I was delighted to find that this interpretation of “Chicago” maintains a high, giddy energy level from beginning to end. The show remains savage and satirical, as gritty as it is glitzy, but it’s also surprisingly sensitive. It’s a whole lot more than just razzle dazzle.