For Assassins, Theater Latté Da turned its northeast Minneapolis home into a working amusement park. Now, for Chicago, it’s a speakeasy cabaret. At this rate, if the company ever does Show Boat, they’re going to have to caulk the Ritz and push it into the Mississippi.
The theater was built in 1926, the same year playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins introduced Broadway to a new satire inspired by the true stories of two Windy City women acquitted of murders under dubious circumstances. John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (book, lyrics), and Bob Fosse (co-writer, original choreographer) adapted the play into a 1975 musical; bolstered by the Oscar-winning 2002 movie, Chicago has become one of the most vaunted entries in America’s musical theater canon.
Director Rothstein and his creative team embrace the material’s salacious Jazz Age roots in a production that draws the audience into a fully realized world of amoral glitz. Conceiving Chicago as a series of vaudeville vignettes, its creators gave a newly literal meaning to the phrase “show trial.”
Putting the audience onstage is a schtick you’ve seen before, but not like this: Scenic designer Eli Sherlock shades the distinction between stage and seating just about as much as anyone could without straight-up gutting the vintage auditorium. In addition to the spectators seated at bars tracing stage tiers, a catwalk divides the front rows as characters make entrances and exits throughout the space. That presents a series of daunting technical challenges—not least for lighting designer Mary Shabatura, whose stunning work both directs viewers’ attention and bathes the beaming cast in a warm glow that ignites every sequin in Alice Fredrickson’s flamboyant costumes.
This show is full of juicy roles, and Rothstein spreads the love around in a production that elevates the ensemble. This isn’t a Chicago that lets Billy Flynn run away with all the love; in fact, businesslike actor Robert O. Berdahl looks like he’d be just as happy to get the razzle-dazzle over with and sit back to enjoy the quality cigars those $5,000 paydays will buy him.
Latté Da regular Britta Ollmann has fun with the wicked Roxie: Her angelic face, glittering gowns, and big platinum hair invite reflections on what a young Dolly Parton might have done if she decided to use her gifts for evil rather than good. As her rival, rising star Michelle de Joya leaps into the limelight of Minnesota musical theater with a winning performance: Instead of a sneering ice queen, de Joya’s Velma is endearingly vulnerable in numbers like “I Can’t Do It Alone.” (In the process, she bolsters what’s turning into a banner season for show-stopping musical numbers delivered, partially, while upside down.)
Chicago is more timely than ever in our media-saturated legal landscape, but this production doesn’t hit the show’s social critique too hard: Given the subject matter, it feels almost dangerously fun. Just what a speakeasy’s supposed to be.
Theater Latte Da
345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
612-339-3003; through November 3