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Razzle dazzle ’em

Zach Chiero plays Billy Flynn in Merely Players production of “Chicago.” (Kara Cavalca for Merely Players)
Merely Players spoofs Americana in ‘Chicago’

A sleazy fixer dissembles. An ingénue deceives. A wise old woman conjures. A witness comments. And a sad clown broods.

That’s the commedia dell’arte way of describing the stock characters in “Chicago,” Kander and Ebb’s timeless spoof of American mendacity and celebrity worship. Merely Players’ brilliant production runs one more weekend through Sunday.

Back in the 1970s, the creators, along with choreographic wizard Bob Fosse, reshaped a 1920s Chicago murder spree as vaudevillian satire. The classic definition of the form is “a farce with music.” Vaudeville had gone out of style decades earlier with the advent of movies. But the genre is as sturdy as Greek farce. Vaudevillian style also conjures medieval “street theater.” And that focus is essential to “Chicago,” the musical. The Players’ revival is smart, stylish and true to deep theatrical traditions.

If you go

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

WHERE: Merely Underground, 789 Tech Center Drive.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.

TICKETS: $35-$38. Performances sold out, sign up for waiting list.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.merelyplayers.org or call 247-7657.

Director Mona Wood-Patterson heightens every vaudevillian trope as the work centers on a murder trial. Super-confident announcers introduce “numbers.” A ventriloquist and his puppet explicate legal discovery. A dazzling fan dance a la Florenz Ziegfield underpins motive. Short spoken scenes reenact the crime. Sustained high notes wait for audience applause. Witnesses hilariously request their exit music. Chorines high-kick and low split. A tambourine, not a drum, punctuates gag lines as final arguments take shape. Wood-Patterson has made sure another vaudeville favorite, whistling, appears. Watch for it in the finale.

This production holds true to Kander and Ebb’s foundational belief in the genre. They superimposed an American true-crime story on the form and gave us new musical theater.

And the Players rise to the occasion thanks to Wood-Patterson’s inspired direction. Zachary Chiero charms as the finagling Billy Flynn. Mary-Catherine McAlvany distills Velma Kelly’s conniving desire for celebrity. Hallie Denman embodies Roxie Hart’s slippery manipulations with pretend innocence. Stacey Mock persuades her protégés and the audience that Mama Morton knows best. Melanie McLean captures reporter Mary Sunshine’s thirst for a good story and some limelight. Geoff Johnson illuminates pitiful Amos Hart, the sad clown, the Pagliacci role, with his melancholy. And Holden Grace brings Fred Casely, Roxie’s jerky lover, to bumptious comic life. His interaction with Roxie sets up the most sardonic song in the show: the Cell Block Tango with its #metoo lyric: “They Had it Coming.”

Choreographer Chiero enhances a 1920s dance vocabulary with only occasional nods to Fosse, making this production fresh and not derivative. Music Director Tom Kyser has coached his singers so lyrics are not lost. Costume Designer JoAnn Nevels once again goes beyond a period look with fishnet stockings, bowler hats, double-breasted suits, tuxedos, sequins and dazzling white-fringed chemises for a stunning closing number. Charles Ford’s set recreates a ’20s look with a black-red-gold color palette, stylized lines and shell footlights. Only difficulties with a traveling spot caused some unease.

Given the current hush-money trial consuming the nation, Merely Players couldn’t have chosen a better end-of-season musical.

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