Eyeing the photos of the smiling actors in Theatre Downtown's production of "Chicago," I was feeling a bit skeptical.
How would these young, bright-eyed actors summon up the cold, almost sneering, cynicism needed to effectively tell the tale?
"Chicago," after all, is a lot more than a little song, a little dance. This is the musical that teaches us such valuable lessons as the truth doesn't matter, everyone has a price, the media are a bunch of mindless puppets, the jury system is a joke and celebrity is the ultimate achievement.
But director Steve MacKinnon has imbued his cast with the right amount of hardness under the glitter; you see their goal is self-preservation above all else.
It's there in the world-weary tone of murderess Velma Kelly (Danielle Lang), and it's there in the grasping, gasping slyness of fellow killer Roxie Hart (Michelle Elise).
Choreographer Denise Ahlert does her part, too. A staging specialist and choreographer at Disney World, Ahlert knows how to make the most of an unusual dance stage. And, more important, she knows how to take nonprofessional dancers and make them a cohesive unit with moves and routines that match their abilities.
The dancing, so iconic to "Chicago," is rightly Fosse-inspired, but at times is a bit more sprightly, reminding the audience why despite the darkness, "Chicago" is so much fun.
Speaking of fun, Joel Warren is having the time of his life as smooth-talkin' lawyer Billy Flynn. With a pencil-thin mustache and devilish gleam in his eye, he bursts into each of his scenes with infectious energy. I know Warren's an actor, not a lawyer, but were I ever in legal trouble I might just hand him $5,000 and see what he could do.
MacKinnon gives many of his actors big entrances. Lang — all long legs, black bob and bad attitude — starts things off with a rollicking "All That Jazz."
As Mary Sunshine, the very funny Joshua Eads-Brown appears primping and preening on a balcony, a cross between a fairy godmother and Evita.
But it's Elise's Roxie who gets the most dramatic debut: backlit as she descends a staircase to confront her lover. (The seductive lighting design is by Felicia Hall.)
We next see her sprawled out across the band's piano, flirting with the bass player, as she sings about her drip of a husband, Amos (Eddy Coppens, whose placid face makes being uninteresting interesting.)
That number, "Funny Honey," has a slight balance problem with the audience unsure whether to focus on Elise's singing, or Coppens' acting. A few other quibbles:
Priscilla Bagley as Matron "Mama" Morton works the crowd well in "When You're Good to Mama," but plays the matron as more haughty than earthy, leaving her dialogue sounding a bit stiff.
Santio Cupon has a million-watt smile as the emcee, but needs to hit his introductions a hair earlier to keep the show's flow.
And the male chorus members could be more precise in their singing throughout.
But all is forgiven when you see things like the circus motif to "Razzle Dazzle" with its strong man and girls with ribbons and parasols.
Matt Rudman's clever set creates a stage within a stage, complete with footlights, on the Theatre Downtown floor. The notion fits perfectly with the idea that reality will always take a back seat to our voracious appetite for entertainment — and boy, there's plenty to entertain in this ambitious, delightful production.
Matthew J. Palm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5038. Read his Orlando Theater Blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/theaterblog.
See for yourself
•Theatre Downtown production of the Kander and Ebb musical 'Chicago'
•Where: Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave., Orlando
•When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 13
•Tickets: $22 adults, $18 seniors and students