Theater Review: Chicago playing at Timber Lake Playhouse

June 9, 2010

By Bill Beard

I love summer stock theater! I spent 20-plus years in the New England states, where summer theaters can be found everywhere…in the beautiful woods and countryside, with lakes and resorts all around. And I mean good summer theater; really excellent professional stuff. That sort of thing is rather scarce here in the Midwest corn fields.

Except for the marvelous Timber Lake Playhouse! This wonderful, professional group has been around for 49 years! Nestled in the deep woods near Mt. Carroll, Ill., this charming venue has grown every year, in size, in facilities, in popularity and certainly in quality.

With 371 seats in an air-conditioned auditorium, comfort is just as guaranteed as is the quality of the production. With a resident company of actor-singer-dancers from all around the country, Timber Lake does six shows every summer season, including three musicals—a terrific variety every year.

Starting off this 2010 season, and playing through this weekend, June 13, is a full-scale staging of Kander and Ebb’s long-running Broadway hit, Chicago. Based on a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, at the time a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, it is based on two real-life murderesses in the Windy City in 1924. Both the original play and the musical use the fictionalization of these events as a stylized, tongue-in-cheek satire on corruption in the world of criminal justice, catering to the concept of the “celebrity criminal” and the public’s obsession with violence, scandal and celebrity.

The play was an immediate success; but it wasn’t until the 1970s that famous director-choreographer Bob Fosse and vivacious Broadway dancing star Gwen Verdon secured the rights to do the musical. It opened in 1975, with modest success, until Liza Minnelli replaced an injured Verdon, and Chicago became a hit, running for 936 performances.

Revived in 1996, the show found even more enthusiastic audiences. Having been mesmerized by the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and now looking to celebrity reality television for entertainment, the theater public flocked to see this new, sizzling hot, sexy spoof about the “merry murderesses of Chicago.” It was an instant hit, and is still running today, 14 years later, stimulated afresh by the Academy Award-winning 2002 movie.

Timber Lake’s new artistic director, James Beaudry, is right on target. He has kept the open-fourth-wall, direct-to-the-audience staging; he has stayed close to the fantastic original choreography style of Bob Fosse, and he has the dancers to do it. The general ensemble is young, stylish, elegant and downright classy. Designers Amanda Sweger (sets), Matthew Guminski (lights) and Tate Ellis (costumes) have created an overall look that reeks of jazz age, Prohibition-era Chicago. Visually, the production is perfect.

With a few exceptions, the cast is splendid. It absolutely requires three major leads: Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, the chorus girl and the cabaret singer; and Billy Flynn, the “I’ll get you off and make you famous” lawyer. Billy’s method of defending his clients (all of whom seem to be washed up chorus girls-come-killers) is by using the media to turn them into ridiculous glamorized criminal celebrities. “Which sexy murderess will be the new ‘Toast of Cook County Jail’”? the media’s “Top Murderess of the Week”?

Richard Gere set the ultimate standard for slickest legal sleaze artist as Billy Flynn in the film; Huntington University’s Philip Black is a somewhat understated Billy at Timber Lake, but definitely holds up very well. He sings and moves with great aplomb. (Although his physical manipulation of the ventriloquist number needs to be more obvious to the audience—his hands on her elbows, perhaps.)

But in the end, this whole show revolves around and depends upon the two actresses playing Roxie and Velma. Here is where Director Beaudry’s casting skills proved brilliant. Andrea Leach is a genuine powerhouse as Velma Kelly. Her singing and her acting are strong and exciting; her sense of comedy is sharp and mischievous; and her dancing! Wow! What a body! And what fun to watch!

Equally trained and talented, Jenny Guse is sheer genius as Roxie Hart. A recent graduate of Millikin University, she returns to TLP this year as a guest performer. She has an uncanny connection with her audience, without being imposing or condescending. She is just a natural, with a great voice and a devilish little grin. She and Ms. Leach share the stage in competition as characters, but with great professionalism as co-performers.

The role of Matron Mama Morton, who wheels and deals with the media and her prison charges (played by Queen Latifah in the movie), is played by Missouri State University’s Samantha Barboza. Perhaps a bit young for the role, she does a commendable job, but needs more power, more shrewdness and cunning.

Currently a junior theater major at Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music, Jay Ellis has a lovely voice; but in the role of Amos Hart (“Mr. Cellophane”), he is mis-cast and mis-directed. Whether the costume was just ill-fitted or he was directed to move/walk as he did, the character was discomforting. I will look forward to seeing him in another show.

I know there are quite a few Rockford and stateline folks who know about and are frequent attendees at Timber Lake. I encourage everyone to check it out this summer…especially this week…to still see Chicago. Even if you saw it last week in Rockford, this would be the perfect chance to compare.

TLP has five more shows to offer this summer. The next show, the wonderful and poignant Steel Magnolias, opens Thursday, June 17. And after that, they are doing the old favorite musical Oklahoma! from July 1 to 11.

For information, call (815) 244-2035 or go online at www.timberlakeplayhouse.org.

From the June 9-15, 2010 issue

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