As the lights dim on the Middleton Performing Arts Center's proscenium stage, a flickering projector eases us back a few decades to the 1920s, with lively music and clips of flappers doing the Charleston. When the film reel ends, the lights rise on dancers in classic Bob Fosse silhouette, and suddenly we are in Chicago.
Chicago is the tale of two vaudevillian murderesses who battle for the spotlight in 1920s Chicago. Roxie Hart (Meagan Wells) has killed her lover and tricked her dimwitted husband (Adam Aufderhaar) into taking the rap. When Roxie's plan unravels and she lands in prison, her ill-gotten celebrity rankles Velma Kelly (Stephanie Genito) who was enjoying some ill-gotten celebrity of her own. Their only hope against the gallows is sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn (Roger Allen Rickman).
Middleton Players Theatre's show, which opened Friday, gets off to a slow start, with opener "All That Jazz" feeling more sleepy than sultry, but the stage comes alive for "Cell Block Tango," a number that highlights the company's talent.
Genito's performance feels flat in the show's opening number, but later she nails Velma's flashy exterior, as well as her vulnerability. Wells is adorable as Roxie, with a beautiful voice and smart comedic timing, but Roxie can be a hard character to sell, and she doesn't always sell it. At times she's a bit too hard-edged, not providing enough of a foil for Velma and making it harder to sympathize with her in her more tender moments.
Aufderhaar struggles to connect emotionally as Amos early in the show, so I braced myself for his solo number in Act II. But his rendition of "Mister Cellophane," understated and unnerving, ends up being one of the resonant performances.
Montana Skye is spot on as reporter Mary Sunshine, with an improbably clear soprano and impeccable comedic timing. Rickman is funny as Billy Flynn, but lacks the smarmy charm the role demands. Amy L. Welk is a powerhouse as Matron on "When You're Good to Mama," and her later duet with Genito showcases heartbreaking harmonies for such a funny song.
Dazzling costumes from Kristin Richgels, jaw-dropping choreography from Sara Bartlett, and a simple, elegantly designed set from Patrick J. Motiff -- from first glance to last peek, the production is visually stunning. A woman in the row behind me gasped at least three times, and I'm not so jaded that I can't be moved by the blinding flash of sequins in the footlights.
Dancing is often overlooked in smaller budget, local productions, but here the choreography is the star. Throughout the show were several moves so impressive the audience burst into applause mid-song, leaving me feeling a bit like I was at the Shamu show at Sea World.
This production is eye candy from start to finish, and if you want to be razzle-dazzled, it will not disappoint. Some of the performances ring a little hollow, but the glitz and glamour go a long way to making you forget. As Billy Flynn sings to Roxie in the show's second act: "Give 'em the old hocus pocus, bead and feather 'em -- how can they see with sequins in their eyes?"