Review | 'Chicago' at Union Station a refreshing change

I approached the production of "Chicago" at Union Station with some trepidation because I carry too many memories of underfunded, haphazardly staged shows from Padgett Productions.

"Chicago," although certainly produced on the cheap -- and sloppy in places -- proved to be a refreshing change of pace at a sparsely attended Thursday night performance. The band was fairly tight, some of the performances were good and the dancers captured the Bob Fosse attitude even if they lacked the precision to really pull it off.

Director/choreographer Matthew Allen deserves credit for hammering this production together with limited resources and rehearsal time.

But this show is so clever and the music so irresistible that it's tough to screw up. If you have people who can sing and move, you're in business. The songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb are some of their best, and the book by Fosse and Ebb (based on a 1920s play) is a deliciously cynical, sexy depiction of celebrity killers, slick lawyers and a lemming-like press corps.

In other words, it evokes an era not so different from our own. Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart are fame-crazed killers who parlay their notoriety into success on the vaudeville circuit. This 1975 portrait foreshadowed the era of reality television, when any fool or sociopath can become a star.

This production's calling card is Sally Struthers, best known as a television actress, who plays jail matron Mama Morton. Putting it plainly, Struthers is the best thing about this show. Couching a wacky sense of humor within an assured performance that seems to channel Mae West, Struthers looks as if she's having big fun. Her enthusiasm rubs off on the other actors and the audience.

Samatha Ware's big voice enlivens her performance as Velma, which she plays with lots of attitude. More impressive is Pamela Todd as Roxie. Her performance, punctuated with precise details and physicality, gains strength as the show progresses. She's funny, but she gets there by playing a real character with real emotions.

As lawyer Billy Flynn, Travis Murray makes a strong initial impression and possesses a powerful voice. His slightly schlubby stage presence is a curious departure from the role's Jerry Orbach/James Naughton/Richard Gere pedigree. On Thursday his performance unraveled a bit in Act 2 as he stumbled over lines several times.

Nick Padgett does a fairly nice job as Amos ("Mr. Cellophane"), although his working-class urban accent rings false. The ensemble of fit young dancers brings energy to the stage; they're fun to watch as a group.

The bare-bones physical production in a way suits the show, which was designed as a sort of vaudevillian revue. Padgett, the company's artistic director, thinks big and sometimes that leads him to produce shows beyond his abilities. This "Chicago" isn't slick but neither is it a disaster.