“Chicago”: One of Sierra Stages’ best productions in its nine-year history

Our region’s arts and culture scene recently has been basking in the sunlight. In July, the California Arts Council named 14 statewide Cultural Districts, and Grass Valley-Nevada City and Truckee were included in the elite group. The same week the iconic California WorldFest drew big crowds to the Nevada County Fairgrounds for headliners such as Michael Franti, thanks to being re-energized by the imaginative, determined staff of The Center for the Arts.

And the beat goes on as Sierra Stages presents the Nevada County premiere of  the Broadway hit “Chicago” at the historic Nevada Theatre in Nevada City through August 5. We attended last night, and marveled at the local production: the acting, singing, dancing, music and razzle-dazzle of Chicago in the late ’20s. It is clearly one of Sierra Stages’ best productions in its nine-year history. Judging by their reactions after the show, including a long standing ovation, other patrons agreed. For $28 a ticket, the show is great deal, and many performances have been selling out, including ours.

The show and the venue, at the newly renovated Nevada Theatre, epitomize what is earning our region statewide honors for its arts and culture. This is adding vibrancy to our historic downtowns; Nevada City was teaming with locals and visitors last night.

The original Broadway production of “Chicago” opened 47 years ago. “The driving force behind the show was director/choreographer Bob Fosse, fresh from winning an Oscar for Cabaret,” wrote Peter Mason, Sierra Stages’ managing director, in the program. Liza Minelli was a star of the show. In the ’90s a new production won six Tony Awards, including “best musical revival” it is still running 21 years later, Mason observed.

The play centers on two real-life murder cases in 1920s Chicago. Both were acquitted. It is performed as a “musical vaudeville,” with each of the musical numbers in the style of a different real-life vaudeville personality from the ’20s.

Robert Rossman’s directing, as well as the acting from a cast of 20, was superb: Kate Haight as Velma Kelly; Jacquelynn Kilenko as Roxie Hart; Micah Cone as Amos Hart; and Jonathan Hansard as Billy Flynn, among others.

All of the characters were well-developed; we were entertained nonstop by mouthy Roxie and Velma (“Start the car I know a whoopie spot… where the gin is cold and the piano’s hot.”); felt sad for Amos (Mica was one of the best performers); and “sold” on Bill’s slick lawyering. (“I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but if Jesus Christ lived in Chicago today, and he had come to me and he had five thousand dollars, let’s just say things would have turned out differently.”) It was a seasoned cast — some returning from other Sierra Stages productions.

Ken Getz did a wonderful job conducting the 14-member band, which produced energized versions of familiar songs such as “All That Jazz,” “Razzle Dazzle” and “When You’re Good to Mama.” There were woodwinds, a trumpet, trombone, banjo, base, tuba, keyboards — and a violin. Getz is Sierra Stages’ music director, Peter Mason is managing director, and Rossman is the newly named artistic director, a lineup that will “up their game” further. Rossman has directed nine, acted in ten, and provided guidance and advice for other Sierra Stages’ productions.

We have seen the show on Broadway, and I wondered if this big Broadway musical could be “right-sized” on a smaller stage. It worked. So did the sound and lightening design. I also enjoyed the occasional, casual interaction between the cast and the band — an actor passing a newspaper with the blaring headline “Roxie Rocks Chicago” to the piano player to peruse, for example. 

Fosse said Chicago was his response to the Watergate scandal — unfolding in the early ’70s — but I could see some parallels to our current politics: the reporters scribbling “fake news” into their notebooks, for example. I lived in Chicago when I was in graduate school and return regularly. After leaving the show, I had fond memories of Chicago planted in my mind. I kept looking around for a steakhouse, such as the Chicago Chop House. It was nowhere to be seen, though we did enjoy a nightcap at the Golden Era Lounge down Broad Street.

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