Last chance to see ‘Chicago’ Sunday

By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)

There are many reasons why John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Chicago is the longest-running American Broadway show on the Great White Way. First of all, it is a thoroughly satisfying adult comedy with a remarkable book by the late Ebb and the immortal Bob Fosse.

Vanessa Van Vrancken as Roxie Hart and Kristen Sandler as Velma Kelly in “Chicago” finishing its run Sunday at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center. (Photo by John Barrois)

The songs are unquestionably some of the best the composer and lyricist team wrote with classics like “All That Jazz,” “My Own Best Friend,” “Mister Cellophane” “All I Care About” and “Razzle Dazzle.” There is always a full orchestra on stage providing background for the time and to keep the action moving along with a score that evokes the spirit of the jazz age where everything could and would happen.

The Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) presented Chicago at the opening of its Westwego Performing Arts Theater several years ago with maestro and executive/artistic director Dennis Assaf holding the baton. With Kenneth Beck at the helm as director and choreographer, Alan Payne, the conductor of Rivertown Theater’s most recent rendering of this same work, assumes the conductor’s podium at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center and he does so with absolute precision and balance.

With his long experience as a choreographer, Beck continues to amaze audiences with his well-considered dance moves. This musical is a natural for a man of his many talents, but he is helped along magnificently by a leading cast of players who bring with them past experience of having traveled in past years with both national and international road tours of Chicago .

Homegrown talent Vanessa van Vrancken stars as Roxie Hart while Louisiana native Patrick Ryan Sullivan takes the male lead of shyster lawyer Billy Flynn. Both have had considerable experience with these roles and it shows.

The “Cell Block Tango” number from “Chicago.” (Photo by John Barrois)

Van Vrancken is a stellar dance talent who takes to this role as a duck to water. In fact, she makes it look easy, which it most certainly is not. With a smile as broad as the gin of the era was potent, Van Vrancken is an absolute delight to watch, sashaying around the stage with an almost giddy schoolgirl demeanor.

While not as seasoned a performer as Van Vrancken,, New York-based Kristen Sandler does a creditable job as murderess Velma Kelly too. Rounding out the main cast are Kate Arthurs-Goldberg in the role of jailhouse Matron “Mama’ Morton and Sean Riley as Amos Hart, Roxie’s misfortunate and often overlooked husband.

With the exception of Arthurs-Goldberg, all the leads are Equity members, a rare and pleasant surprise for most local production companies. The fact is the new auditorium has stepped up JPAS’s game. In such an opulent setting it is only logical that the level of talent should be ramped up as well.

Velma Kelly (Kristen Sandler) in “All That Jazz.” (Photo by John Barrois)

Recently Beck has established himself as the company’s most capable and consistent musical director and choreographer. Last season’s West Side Story was nothing short of superb and this Chicago continues to spotlight his expertise in filling the stage with energy and well-executed ensemble work from his choruses, but most especially from his dancers.

Reprising the role of Mary Sunshine is sopranist Drew Arnold, who first played the role of the reporter at the former Rivertown Repertory Theater (now the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts) several years ago. Arnold recently tackled the role of Ursula in Rivertown’s The Little Mermaid, receiving well-deserved plaudits for powerful vocals as the heavy in that work. This is a role for which Arnold seems tailor-made.

Chicago provides an evening’s or afternoon’s worth of great theatre. Assaf can be assured that even if the baton is not in his hands that his JPAS Broadway Pit is sounding resplendent in his new facility. It’s another reminder of how all Broadway shows should be done with the highest of production values and a live orchestra to work in sync with the actors, dancers and singers on stage.

Chicago concludes its run this weekend with shows tonight and tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m and a Sundy matinee at 2:00 p.m. at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive in Metairie. Tickets are available online here.

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