Critic’s notebook: An impressive ‘Chicago’ at CMT, a mixed ‘Anna in the Tropics’ at Madera Theatre Project

A review roundup:

‘Chicago: Teen Edition’

Through July 23, Fresno Memorial Auditorium

Director Josh Montgomery sure knows how to give us the old “Razzle Dazzle.”

The new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Chicago” is first-rate. The choreography, production design, vocals and directorial prowess often exceed what you’d think possible for a teenage cast. In several moments, I forgot I was watching a youth theater company. That in itself is a significant accomplishment.

Pictured above: Alexis Shelton, left and Kelsie Oba-Spence in “Chicago.”

I don’t officially “review” CMT in terms of negatively critiquing individual or ensemble performances (though the professional creative team is fair game), but, thanks to Montgomery, this “Chicago” is sometimes at the same level and even exceeds some “grown-up” community theater productions in terms of vision and execution.


The official title of this version is “Chicago: Teen Edition,” which might send jazz fingers of alarm up the spines of fans of this classic show. But while some of the raunchy bits have been excised – a handful of naughty lyrics, a couple of adult-themed songs, a few suggestive plot points – the scrubbing-for-younger-ages process hasn’t destroyed the tipsy-risque heart of the material. Roxie still kills her lover in a fit of rage; Velma still revels in the knowledge that she knocked off her husband and sister when she finds them fooling around. Once they’re both in the Cook County Jail, Roxie still fakes a pregnancy to capture the attention of the celebrity-hungry media, which both serves as an interesting premonition of the ubiquitousness and power of today’s social media and also shows us that the act of sexual congress has not been entirely forsaken in the quest to make the show palatable for easily offended parents.

I enjoyed all the leading performances at the Saturday evening performance I attended. (I saw the “Kelly” cast perform.) Alexis Shelton, as Roxie, and Kelsi Oba-Spence, as Velma, play beyond their years as two of the accused murderesses in 1920s Chicago awaiting trial in the Cook County Courthouse. Hunter Oehlschlaeger is strong as Amos, the put-upon husband, with a crackling stage presence. Joseph Portela’s rich vocals push him over the top as Billy Flynn, the sleazy lawyer. Ella Rutiaga excels in the choice secondary role of Matron “Mama” Morton, the informal (and happily corrupt) grand dame of the jail. (Note: The leading female roles are double-cast; Kristen Pacheco, Audrey Agbayani and Audrey Allen are featured in the “Hart” cast, while the men don’t share their parts. Such is the gender-driven supply-and-demand formula of children’s theater.)

Photos by Diego Sosa

The “Kelly” cast of the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Chicago” performs.

The real standout, however, is the dancing. It’s wonderful. This isn’t just a case in which a handful of strong dancers do the heavy lifting while everyone else shuffles in the background. Montgomery coaxes crisp, attitudinal performances from nearly everyone on stage. Such numbers as “Cell Block Tango” and “We Both Reached for the Gun” are spiffy and sharp. Montgomery helps his cast capture the smug, sardonic, Bob Fosse-inspired bent of these characters, from the murderesses to the ensemble. And that in turn makes these young performers seem older than their years, which also leads to the production’s sophisticated glow.

The creative team soars, from Dan Aldape (sound and lighting design) and Kirsten Peters-McGrath and Jen Ruiz (costume design) to Steve Souza (hair and makeup design.) The minimalist set (by Montgomery and Peters-McGrath) belongs in the big leagues (especially thanks to Aldape’s lights), and the balance between live voices and recorded music was flawless at the night I attended.

I’m sure that some might still mock the idea of a “Chicago” that has been shrink-wrapped and sanitized in the name of demographically inspired increased market share. But when you see a version as good as this, it’s easy to let that cynicism fall away. Montgomery “gets” the tango between silliness and sleaze in “Chicago.” He deserves a key to the city.

‘Anna in the Tropics’

Madera Theatre Project; finished its run July 15, Matilda Torres Performing Arts Center, Madera

Madera Theatre Project

Mason T. Beltran and Cecilia Cantu in “Anna in the Tropics.”

With the abundance of recorded sound in our lives – TV, podcasts, talking elevators, Spotify, even that infernal looped recording of the mayor at the airport welcoming travelers to Fresno – it’s easy to think that people in the “olden days” existed mostly in a state of silence. What we forget is how much live sound there was back before recordings became so ubiquitous, from the pianoforte in the parlor to the preacher booming in the pulpit. One of the clever ways for sound to be incorporated into daily life could be found in the cigar factories of 1920s Miami. Workers there banded together to hire and pay a lector, someone who would read aloud from great works of literature.

In other words: Who needed audio books?

This is the world of “Anna in the Tropics,” a lyrical exploration of love, betrayal and community by the playwright Nilo Cruz. It closed Saturday, July 15, at the Madera Theatre Project.

The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, is an intense, beautifully written exploration of often seething emotions. With its portrayal of group of Cuban immigrants, it gave the Madera company a chance to offer a storyline with a strong Latinx connection. I commend the company and director Rodolfo Robles Cruz for bringing such an elegant work to the area.

I found the production mixed, particularly in terms of its acting and direction. It reminded me of the unevenness of many of the community theater productions of Shakespeare I’ve seen throughout the decades, with some performances top-notch and others laboring at times to master the text and the literary scope of the material.

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Mason T. Beltran, who has impressed me time and again in productions across the Valley, was powerful in the role of Juan Julian. He and Cecilia Cantu, as Conchita, his married love interest in the factory, were best able to bring the playwright’s often dense, poetic prose to life.

But some others in the cast seemed to race through the material, thus skimping on the opportunity to let Cruz’s sometimes seductive, other times politically charged words text resonate. As director, Rodolfo Robles Cruz needed to slow down such characters as Ofelia (played by Dalicia Torrecillas) and let the words set the tone for the steamy, sultry tenor of the play. At other times, the emotional intensity just wasn’t there, such as in the onstage relationship between Beltran’s Juan Julian and Palomo (played by Claudio Laso), Conchita’s semi-estranged husband, who can see all too well that his neglected wife is falling under the spell of the attractive new lector. (That Palomo has been cheating on his wife the whole time doesn’t seem to matter to anyone involved; it’s the old double-standard at work.) The tension between the two men should have been palpable. It wasn’t.

And I was expecting more passion. Yes, this was a community show staged in a smaller town, and I wasn’t expecting the same sultry sense of longing and intimacy that I understand permeated the original Broadway production. But there are ways to stage sexual intensity without being explicit. The direction felt tentative, almost shy.

Still, there was much to commend in “Anna in the Tropics,” including strong turns by Beyonce Rodriguez as Marela, co-owner of the factory, and Jorge Ramirez as Cheche, her brother-in-law. Christina McCollam’s scenic design, which incorporated beautiful wine barrels,  was impressive. And while Rodolfo Robles Cruz as director didn’t achieve all his ambitions, he brought a sensitive and sophisticated work to the stage. There’s plenty to be proud of in that.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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