A&E

Sex in the windy city

Palo Alto Players' "Chicago" is fresh, fun

Palo Alto Players has always had a flair for musicals, but lately it has been upping its own game with blockbuster-style, eye-popping extravaganzas, and this season's opener is no exception. Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse wrote the book; John Kander wrote the music and Ebb the lyrics for the 1975 musical, "Chicago," winner of six Tony Awards for its 1996 Broadway revival. The show continues to enthrall audiences with its slightly raunchy and very comic tale of merry murderesses in the swinging '20s. Players' version knocks it out of the park with dynamite dancing, strong vocals and some fine, fresh staging.

Set in Chicago in the height of the Jazz Age, the show features two star wannabes who just happen to have committed murder: Velma Kelly (Janelle LaSalle) and Roxie Hart (Elizabeth Santana). The two find themselves competing for headlines as they finagle their way off of death row. Aiding their escape from punishment -- but for a price -- are the jail matron, Mama Morton (Jennifer Taylor Daniels), and the unscrupulous but brilliant lawyer, Billy Flynn (Michael Monagle).

As Velma and Roxie vie for attention from the press, they one-up each other with song and dance to prove why they should be Chicago's next big star, providing lots of opportunities for showcasing the actresses' skills and those of the lively ensemble. As their trials approach, they also learn some sobering realities about the fickle Fourth Estate and society's short attention span. Don't come to "Chicago" looking for a morality tale -- just about everyone is corrupt, including the law -- but it's good, clean fun all the same. Er, make that good, sexy fun.

Bob Fosse's signature moves, refreshed and enhanced in this production by director and choreographer Janie Scott, put sex up-front and in your face, but it's witty and clever rather than crude. The terrifically talented ensemble, clad in period underwear and lingerie, fill some fantastic Fosse shoes with fabulous lifts and combinations. They even dance while climbing all over Patrick Klein's inventive, multi-level set, shinnying down fireman's poles or clinging to prison bars. They're all great, but standouts include Mohamed Ismail and Tara Harte-Rodriguez.

The principals rate raves as well. LaSalle's opening with "All That Jazz" is a bit on the mild side, but she heats it up in "Cell Block Tango" and "I Can't Do It Alone." Santana's Roxie runs the gamut of emotions with flair and flaunts her long, straight stems with glee, while charming us in numbers like "Roxie" and "Me and My Baby" (with some oh-so-hilarious baby "boys" assisting). Monagle manages the vocals all right, but excels as the slimy, ever-smiling Flynn. Joey McDaniel brings the house down as Amos Hart in "Mr. Cellophane," and Daniels gets her moment in the spotlight with "When You're Good to Mama." N. Sanchez, as sweet little Mary Sunshine, has fun and shows skills with "A Little Bit of Good."

The band sits on upstage risers, in costume, adding to the nightclub ambiance and vaudeville style. Music director Katie Coleman gets a wonderful, Kurt Weill-ian cabaret sound from them.

Costumes by Jeffrey Hamby play up the sexiness with style, and Nick Kumamoto's lighting partners with Klein's set beautifully. Pat Tyler has a field day with props -- gotta love those feather fans! -- and Jessica Ellithorpe meets style and period challenges with wigs. Director Scott superbly handles choreography for the ensemble numbers, but strangely leaves the solos fairly static. The final duo for Roxie and Velma is also somewhat underwhelming.

Still, the overall effect is delightfully energetic and fun to watch, with enough brilliant moments to deliver a satisfying new take on a much-loved American icon.

What: "Chicago," presented by Palo Alto Players

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Sept. 27. Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.

Cost: $35-$49.

Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.

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