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Performing Arts

Merely Players uncorks a timeless masterpiece

Ensemble members sing “All That Jazz” during rehearsal for Merely Players’ production of “Chicago.” (Courtesy of Kara Cavalca)
‘Chicago’ – a satire for all time

“Chicago” is a satire that is absolutely still relevant, says Mona Wood-Patterson.

Co-founder of Merely Players, Wood-Patterson directs the company’s 2024 musical with one eye on a nearly 60-year-old masterpiece and the other on our contemporary cultural landscape.

“’Chicago’ is a satire on pop culture’s endlessly lurid fascination with, per the show’s opening line: ‘murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery – all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts,’” she said. “It shows how the press can be manipulated to change a story and that wrongdoing can be whitewashed.”

Opening Friday, “Chicago” will run three weekends at Merely Underground in the Tech Center. With a 60-plus member company, on and off stage, the Players will unspool a quintessential American tale of sex, murder and celebrity.

If you go

WHAT: “Chicago,” a musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Merely Players, directed by Mona Wood-Patterson.

WHEN: 7 p.m. May 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18; 2 p.m. May 5, 12, 19.

WHERE: Merely Underground, 789 Tech Center Drive.

ADMISSION: $35-$38.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.merelyplayers.org or call 749-8585.

In 2024, we’re already snagged in another dark political melodrama. We’re slogging through a court case featuring porn stars, a Playboy Bunny, smart attorneys and a mesmerized public wanting more sleaze and subterfuge. “Chicago” captured and bottled that 24/7 American frisson way back in the 1970s.

“The show is very Brechtian,” Wood-Patterson said, meaning “Chicago” self-consciously struts its theatrical stuff in an obvious way. Vaudevillian in style, it’s a pastiche of numbers connected with enough storytelling tissue to illuminate what she says is “a horrific topic couched in fun and energetic music.”

Mary-Catherine McAlvany as Velma, left, and Hallie Denman as Roxie rehearse for Merely Players’ latest production, “Chicago,” which opens Friday. (Courtesy of Kara Cavalca)

For a musical that premiered in 1975, got a reboot with an Encores! Production in 1996 and a fresh staging thereafter, plus a highly successful film in 2002, “Chicago” now holds the record for being the longest-running musical on Broadway. It has international reach and continues to play around the world, often in translation. “Chicago” still singes audiences with its distinctly dark take on America’s culture of both duplicity and celebrity.

Among the many things that make “Chicago” a compelling work of art is its grounding in reality. The story sprang from true-crime articles in the Chicago Tribune in the 1920s. Reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins followed several sensational trials involving women who had murdered their husbands or lovers and were acquitted. At the time, a guilty verdict carried the death penalty by hanging. Sleazy attorneys skillfully played all-male juries with femme-fatale sob stories and got acquittals. A gullible public devoured newspaper coverage, and two women in particular, Belvah Gaertner and Beulah Annan, became celebrities for beating the criminal justice system.

In 1926, reporter Watkins saw more mileage in her subject and turned Belvah and Beulah into quasi-fictional figures, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, for her play “Chicago.”

Jump 50 years into the imagination of choreographer and theater genius Bob Fosse. He wrote the book for the musical and worked with composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb to create a satire on American culture for all time. In April 1975, the show opened in Philadelphia then moved to Broadway in June. Reviews were mixed. “Chicago” found itself in the shadow of “A Chorus Line.” Time passed and when the show entertained a slick concert version through the Encores! franchise, it was apparent that history had caught up with a fundamentally brilliant jazz-age satire.

“Chicago” is tellingly relevant. The rest is you-know-what, and history has a way of sliding “greed, corruption, violence and exploitation” into the spotlight again.

“Absolutely relevant,” Wood-Patterson said.

Hallie Denman (Roxie Hart) left, and Mary-Catherine McAlvany (Velma Kelly). (Courtesy of Judith Reynolds)
Roxie and Velma

When the fictional Roxie Hart meets Velma Kelly, it changes how the younger woman views the world. It’s an important plot point that drives the musical “Chicago.”

Two accomplished local performers will bring that encounter to life. Hallie Denman (Roxie) and Mary-Catherine McAlvany (Velma) discussed their stage meeting last week over coffee.

“I have wanted to play Velma since I was 17,” McAlvany said. “I love her personality. I get her. And I get the show – the whole idea of putting on a show to get what you want. The legal system in our country is a show – trials, interviews – it’s all about performance. When Velma takes the stand, she understands the idea that how you perform affects the outcome. And Roxie learns exactly that from Velma.”

Actor, singer, dancer McAlvany has over 30 years of performing experience. She’s also a business woman, wife and mother of four children. Educated in London, Boston and Houston, McAlvany has kept her love of theater alive by performing locally with Merely Players in a variety of roles.

Denman is a graduate of Fort Lewis College and currently works in the FLC admissions office. During her college years, she was in just about every music or drama production including the lead in “Gypsy.” Since college, she’s appeared with Merely Players, Durango TheatreWorks, Durango Arts Center and PlayFest. In 2019, she and Harrison Wendt staged the Animas Rooted Theatre production “Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

“Being in ‘Chicago’ is a dream come true,” she said. “I saw the Broadway production in 2017 with Bebe Neuwirth. She played Velma in 1996, then Roxie, and even Matron ‘Mama’ Norton later. She’s such a versatile performer, and she has a low mezzo voice, perfect for all the roles.”

Denman and McAlvany agreed that their mezzo soprano range fits the characters of Roxie and Velma.

“To have two female leads with powerful mezzo voices is so rare,” Denman said.

“And we have to really take good care of our voices,” McAlvany said. “We sing with some intensity.”

At the beginning and end of “Chicago,” Roxie and Velma sync their voices. And the final duet, “Nowadays,” brings the show’s satirical message into sharp focus.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.