The Cook County Jail ain't big enough to contain Roxie Hart in Maurine Watkins' "Chicago" at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland's Angus Bowmer Theater. This rapid fire comedy stars Catherine Lynn Davis as the prettiest woman ever accused of murder in Chicago. It's nonstop laughs as she dominates everybody and every aspect of the play from start to finish. She's loud, brash, and in control - "You want technique; I got it." She manipulates the cops, press, the Court, fellow prisoners, and even her publicity hound lawyer. When the press or anyone loses interest, she comes up with another angle to get back on top.
The backdrop is the front page of "The Chicago Gazette." Tony de Bruno's Jake Callahan, a Gazette reporter acts as a narrator. In a Walter Winchell type voice, he describes the murder, while windows appear, as if in the wall of an apartment house. In the backdrop as cardboard cutouts act out the murder. Roxie has just shot her cover, and her husband has confessed. It's soon revealed, however, that Roxie did it, and she uses it to get maximum publicity with Callahan's help. She mugs for photo-ops with the cops, DA, her reluctant husband, and anyone else she can drag into the picture. Callahan has told her she can get headlines, and she wants them non-stop.
In jail she grabs the spotlight from Velma and completely rolls over the matron, Mrs Morton. She hates the Salvation Army singers and has her shut the door so she doesn't have to hear them. Even the madwoman, Liz is at least neutralized. Amy Cronise's Liz is as raving mad as Roxie is loud and boisterous, but Roxie's smarter and even conducts jail house photo-ops and interviews. She completely hoodwinks "Evening Star" reporter Mary Sunshine, her sob sister. When Eileen De Sandre's Go-to-Hell Kitty steals the spotlight, they fight. Roxie claims she's pregnant, and a whole new round of headlines screams about the jail house Mom to be. Her husband decides it is not his and divorces her. He claims, repeatedly, that he's not as dumb as he looks, but he's not real convincing.
The only one who can marginally control Roxie is her slick lawyer, Billy Flynn. Bill Geisslinger's Flynn is almost as dynamic as her , but she needs him to get off, and she realizes it. They thoroughly rehearse the theatrics of her court appearance. He demands she be droopy. She objects. They fight, and as she lowers her head and droops, her feet drum the floor.
In the Courtroom scene we're told at the outset that "P. T. Barnam would have been proud." Indeed he would. The twelve man jury are cutouts. When they're told to look at that poor helpless woman, they snap around as one. Then back to the DA, then straight ahead, and so on. Against Roxie's objections: "Whose trial is this? Mine or His?" Flynn puts the DA's motives on trial. When the predictable verdict is finally read, we see the fleeting nature of fame as Machine gun fire sounds in the background and everyone immediately forgets Roxie to go after Machine Gun Rosey.
Catherine Lynn Davis turns in an absolutely scintillating performance. She completely and totally dominates the action for the entire two hours. It's non-stop like Siegfried in his opera. Like him she even has to upstage the dynamic Flynn at the end. He doesn't really factor into it until the last half hour, so he's fresh. She matches him. You have to look at her any time she's on stage, which would be at least three quarters of the play. Her energy level is always up never down. The stamina to do this part is probably why this play has fallen into obscurity. Catherine Lynn Davis dominates every aspect of the play, though. She's absolutely amazing as Roxie Hart.
A word about the play. Maurine Watkins was a young reporter in 1924 when Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan were accused of shooting their respective lovers. Her witty accounts of the trial kept Chicagoans entertained for months and became the basis for her comedy "Chicago," which premiered in New York in 1926. Although it slipped into oblivion after it's enthusiastic reception, it inspired other, better known works, such as Bob Fosse's musical "Chicago." The stellar performance of the original continues at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland through October 30.