Saturday, March 20, 2010

Local Theater Group knows how to “Play Ball” In "Chicago--the Non-Musical"


Long before the 2002 blockbuster film won 6 Academy Awards, and nearly 40 years before Fosse, Kander and Ebb gave us the smash Broadway musical, there was “Chicago”—a viciously funny, non-musical play written by Maurine Dallas Watkins. The play is based on the 1924 court scandals of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, which Watkins covered as a reporter for the Tribune. The media sensation over these cases inspired Watkins to write the play, which made it to Broadway in 1926, became a 1927 silent film and was the basis for Roxie Hart, a 1942 film starring Ginger Rogers. But over the past eight decades, the original “Chicago” has nearly been forgotten.

That’s why Geneva Underground Playhouse’s production of “Play Ball” is such a rare gem: It offers the chance to see the original play—and see it done exceptionally well. But why are they calling it “Play Ball” or “Chicago--the Non-Musical” instead of its original title?

“We don’t want people confusing it with the Broadway musical,” said director Craig Gustafson. This is the story of Roxie Hart, a small-town girl in the big city and infidelic wife who tries to turn a murderous act of passion into stardom and fame. And it’s about the corrupt systems that would rather create front page sensations than see justice done. As heavy as all of that sounds, this is a comedy and a really funny one.

The play begins with Roxie shooting her lover dead because he was ending their affair. Roxie’s husband, Amos, tries taking the blame for the murder, but the ruse is quickly discovered and Roxie is arrested. What follows is a media circus that turns a cold-blooded murderess into a victimized celebrity—a circus that an ambitious and greedy legal system is more than willing to take advantage of.

Tia Prince Srachta in the role of Roxie was a wonderful bundle of energy, going from frenzied fear one second to wild excitement the next. Bill Barry, Jr. played Billy Flynn, the money-grubbing, fame hound of an attorney. Both performed with flair and great comedic timing. Barry and Prince Srachta played off each other well and got great laughs competing for the attentions of the jury (i.e. the audience), neither wanting to lose the spotlight for a second.

Steve Schroeder was fantastic as the ambitious and immoral prosecutor, Martin S. Harrison. All Harrison sees in Hart’s prosecution is his ticket to a better career. Schroeder can express more emotion with one facial gesture than most of us can with our entire bodies, and he showed it here. While listening to Barry/Flynn tear his character apart, Schroeder’s looks of disgust and amazement, not to mention his mouthing of obscenities, got huge laughs.

Sleazy reporter, Jake Callahan was well played by Jack T. Smith. It’s Callahan who helps Roxie see that going to prison will ultimately lead to acquittal and fame. Smith played sympathetic at one point when faced with the sad story of Moonshine Maggie, who was played beautifully by Marjorie Gustafson. When seeing the weeping, hysterical Maggie, who is serving a life sentence and has just been pulled away from her baby, Callahan seems upset. And he is—but only because he hates that Maggie’s lawyer didn’t play up the sympathy card better, which would have been great press. But, as they say in the show, “That’s Chicago.”

Gustafson’s portrayal of the tragic Maggie was gut-wrenching and her abuse by prison matron, Mrs. Morton, added a touch of horror as a counterpoint to the rest of the play.

Morton was given cruel and humorous life by Brenda Scharlau. It’s Morton’s job to keep the important girls happy, the disturbed girls quiet, and everyone in their place. She seems to love her job – and some of the girls – a bit too much, which plays out funny at times, disturbing at others. Like so many in this talented cast, Scharlau had to quickly switch from playing one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. She was great at this.

Another tragic figure was insane, God-fearing Liz, played by Amanda Fisher. Liz sees the divine hand in everything and believes herself damned murdering the boyfriend who wouldn’t marry her. Going from laughing wildly one instant to crying hysterically the next must be challenging for any actor. Fisher was up to the challenge, and it is a compliment when I say she freaked me out.

Aimee Kennedy played Mary Sunshine, a society writer with an eye for helping the scandalized woman. Kennedy was fantastic, crying with Roxie in sympathy, asking leading questions to help paint a more sympathetic picture and in all ways playing ball to help make Roxie’s story a real winner. Kennedy was just plain funny and got people laughing seemingly with ease.

Cheryl Rice was Velma, the wealthy society lady-gone-murderess. Velma and Roxie are in a not-so-subtle competition for the attention of the press. Rice played Velma with elegance, which made it all that much more shocking when she would shout in murderous anger as things did not go her way. It was like watching the Queen give an elegant speech and then throttle one of her ministers – unexpected, but ultimately (at least in this case) funny.

Ken Schaefer did a great job as the loveable, not-too-bright Amos Hart. Amos loves Roxie and will do nearly anything for her, including selling everything he owns to pay for her defense. Schaefer mugged it up for the audience quite well.

Other performances of note include David Amato as sleazy photographer, Babe Maloney, who knows it’s not as important to make a picture tell a thousand words than it is to make it worth a thousand bucks; Nicole Warren as the tough talking, tough fighting Go-to-Hell Kitty; Mike Mocarski as the grumpy Sgt. Murdock; Keith Laug as the corrupt Judge Canton, and Angelicque Cate who did double duty, playing Machine Gun Rosie as well as helping behind the scenes as stage manager for the production.

Director Gustafson, cast and crew did a great job. There were some technical difficulties, such as the metal grill on the prison window that just didn’t want to keep anyone confined, falling off the window as it kept doing. But overall, the scene changes, lighting and other technical elements ran smoothly. The performances were great. And the best evidence of all: the audience showed quite loudly that it was happy. It seems everyone in this production knows how to Play Ball.

“Play Ball” or “Chicago--the Non-Musical” is currently playing at the Geneva Underground Playhouse located in the Urban Grill restaurant, 524 W. State Street, Geneva, IL (southeast corner of State and Sixth Streets).
Running from March 12-April 3, performances begin at 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3pm on Sundays.
For Tickets and information, call 630-232-7683 visit