The sensationalism and showmanship of the press are nothing new, even if conversations about journalistic merit appear to dominate current news. The media has always been pumping out juicy content, devoting attention to eye-catching headlines that would sell more papers — even if there is nothing of substance to report on. This notion is perhaps why the 1975 musical “Chicago” has never lost its relevance and is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history, continuing to play in sold-out theaters across the country and never failing to entertain with its biting commentary on media’s ability to manipulate. Duke’s own Hoof ‘n’ Horn is the next company to tackle the timeless story, bringing the show to the Rubenstein Arts Center for their spring season.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between this production and the other shows put on by Hoof ‘n’ Horn this year is the change of scenery. Instead of the Bryan Center’s Sheafer Lab Theater, the show is staged in the new Rubenstein Arts Center’s von der Heyden Studio Theater, which is much larger and outfitted with a walkway and onstage orchestral pit. The additional space allows for more dynamic choreography and staging, with the ensemble constantly climbing the staircase at center stage or prowling across the walkways. Having the orchestra onstage makes the score pop and brings a needed dimension of sound to the occasionally lackluster performances. While the Rubenstein’s opening and integration into Duke arts have instigated some controversy, it certainly adds to rather than diminishes Hoof ‘n’ Horn’s “Chicago.”
The show itself manages to entertain for its entire run time, even when the numbers drag. The relatively straightforward story — Roxie Hart (played by sophomore Betsy Broaddus) murders her lover and is sent to jail, where she meets murderess Velma Kelly (played by junior Tori Trimm) and must compete with her for the attention of their debonair lawyer Billy Flynn (played excellently by senior Cole Jenson) — lends itself extensively to padding, which can grow tiresome as the show runs out of ways to grab its audience’s attention. The ever-committed members of Hoof ‘n’ Horn do their best, pulling out all the stops with dazzling choreography and over-the-top performances. While some attempts are rousingly successful, others fall a little flat, often due to an overstuffed dance number or a cartoonish reading.
Every member of the cast is uniquely talented and completely dedicated to their role — particularly the ensemble, who are the backbone of every scene and never fail to deliver on laughs, twirls and high notes — but some stand out more than others. Jenson’s Billy Flynn is charming and greasy without ever being too sleazy, and he brings a hilariously understated edge to every scene. Sophomore Tim Clayton is the perfect Amos Hart and brings his own personal touch to his performance of “Mr. Cellophane,” which ends up being more of a show-stopper than some of the flashier numbers. Another performance of note is sophomore Elizabeth Bueti as Mama Morton: She has the regality, the tough-love attitude and the pipes to sell the role completely.
While this iteration of “Chicago” brings nothing new to the table, the talented crew at Hoof ‘n’ Horn once again succeeds in providing sheer entertainment to its audience. In a community where art is often crafted with an underlying purpose of education or enlightenment, the musical theater produced and performed here is often the lone source of fun art and creativity with no higher purpose or ulterior motive. “Chicago” is pure fun, and thanks to its dedicated cast and crew, interesting staging and a few knockout performances, it is also the perfect way to close out a stressful semester on a high note.
Hoof ‘n’ Horn’s “Chicago” is playing through April 22 in the von der Heyden Studio Theater.