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'Chicago' looks uptown on local stage

By MARTY CLEAR
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 7, 2003

LARGO -- One of the many idiosyncrasies about theater in the Tampa Bay area is that the line between "community" and "professional" is often blurry.

The production of Chicago by the Eight O'Clock Theatre is one of the shows that keeps that line indistinct. It's community theater, but on most levels, it's as professional as most anything you're likely to see on local stages.

There's a terrific band, a large cast with few weak links, an attractive art deco set, inventive choreography and complicated but unobtrusive direction.

On top of all that, the production choice is much more provocative than the bland fare often associated with community theater. Chicago isn't sexually explicit, but it's extremely suggestive. Eight O'Clock Theatre ran the risk of offending its more conservative audience members with the racy script and slinky costumes. But the opening night audience, which consisted largely of older people, didn't seem to mind.

That's probably because it's such a great show, full of solid Kander and Ebb songs (All That Jazz and Mr. Cellophane are standouts), and because the production was strong. It helps that Chicago is also a popular and critically acclaimed movie now.

Co-directors Rocco Morabito and Ronnie DeMarco cast more people than they had intended because so many capable dancers auditioned. That allowed DeMarco to create challenging, intricate dance numbers, and the cast met the challenges.

The singing wasn't as consistent as the dancing, and some thin voices were even in major roles. But the performers were charismatic enough to overcome their vocal shortcomings.

Among the best performances was that of Kristine Weinstein as Velma Kelley, the vaudevillian-turned-murderer who finds more fame in prison than she found onstage, and Rebekah Alderson as Roxie Hart, who kills her paramour and steals Velma's headlines. Jay Allen, in the much less flashy role of Roxie's husband, Amos, has some wonderful moments, especially in his solo.

The opening of the show had sloppy elements. The band seemed a bit off, not tight or energetic enough, but it quickly warmed up. Jason Tucker's music direction -- with nice harmonies from a young cast that probably didn't have much singing experience -- ended up being one of the strengths.

Unfortunately, the technical end was a mess. The performers' voices often were heard at wildly different volumes, and spotlights often missed their marks. On several occasions, the blocking took actors from the light into the dark and back into the light during a single line. Poor lighting gave an amateurish look to some of the dance numbers, even though the choreography and dancing were done well.

Problems such as those often get worked out after the first few shows, though. Eight O'Clock Theatre shares the Largo Cultural Center stage and may not have had much time to rehearse in the space before opening night.

* * *

REVIEW: Chicago runs through March 16 at the Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive. Sold out. (727) 587-6793.

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