The seedy, culturally vibrant and rapidly modernizing Berlin of the 1920s was nicknamed “Chicago on the Spree.” That moniker sprang to mind recently during the premiere of a masterful and muscular new production of “Chicago,” directed by Barrie Kosky at the Komische Oper Berlin.
“Chicago,” a “story of greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery,” to quote the prologue, is the longest-running show currently on Broadway, but it got a very mixed reception when it opened there in 1975. Many of those early audience members were uncomfortable with Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse and John Kander’s use of musical showstoppers in the service of an amoral satire, and the show’s jerky and pastiche-like narrative technique.
For his production, Kosky has gone back to the original concept of the show as a musical vaudeville with a heavy dose of bile and a dash of Brechtian alienation, while also embracing burlesque elements. Michael Levine’s dazzling set is outfitted with nearly 7000 light bulbs, which intelligently frame the actors, and the action, in frequently changing configurations that suggest a nightclub, a prison cell and a circus ring.
There are definite echoes of Kosky’s darkly glittering take on “The Threepenny Opera” from 2021. But this “Chicago” is not another radical rethinking of a canonical work, nor is Kosky clearing the cobwebs from an aged classic, as he did previously with “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Candide.” This “Chicago” is simply a damn good show, with an attention to choreography and musical verve rarely found outside Broadway or the West End. The production offered further proof, if any was needed, that Kosky has made the Komische Oper — which has always embraced various forms of music theater — the best place for classic American musicals on the continent.
The show, performed in a limber German translation by Helmut Baumann and Erika Gesell, is impeccably cast. Katharine Mehrling, an acclaimed chanteuse and regular Kosky collaborator, brings the right mix of naïveté and tenacity to the role of Roxie Hart, the washed-up chorus girl whose trial for murdering her lover catapults her to stardom. As her jail mate and rival vaudevillian Velma Kelly, Ruth Brauer-Kvam gives a sexy, assured performance. She’s also the cast’s truest triple threat, singing, twirling and acting her way through the evening without breaking a sweat.
Jörn-Felix Alt brings a rakish, matinee-idol charm to his performance as Billy Flynn, the shyster lawyer who orchestrates media circuses for his female clients. Andreja Schneider makes a sassy, straight-shooting Mama Morton, the crooked warden of Cook’s County Jail, while Ivan Tursic doesn’t overdo the pathos as Roxy’s chump of a husband, Amos.
The music, performed in its original 1975 orchestration, sounds fantastic played by a full orchestra — a luxury you rarely get on Broadway. The conductor Adam Benzwi shapes the music with precision and vitality, and his band gives the changing temperatures and moods the score requires.
Handsome and sleek, the staging is as stripped-down as some of Kosky’s other recent productions, but he also knows when to pull out the stops. Mehrling makes her bold entrance in “All That Jazz,” trailed by a dozen dancers hiding behind red ostrich feather fans. Kosky brings back the razzle-dazzle in the final number, “Nowadays,” when Roxy and Velma are outfitted in the sparkliest suits legally permitted onstage. In between, Victoria Behr’s costumes provide plenty of other fresh and smoothly executed ideas, including orange silk robes for the prisoners and surreal touches like masks of oversized heads and cartoon lips.
The choreographer Otto Pichler, credited as a co-director, crafts sparkling dance numbers for the soloists and his 12-person troupe with nary a finger snap, twist or slow-motion hip roll in sight. This is a welcome choice, since anything that is overdone — even a style as vivid as Fosse’s — can become fossilized.
After the Komische Oper opened its season with a monumental production staged in an airport hangar, “Chicago” is the company’s first show at the Schiller Theater, its temporary home, in the west of Berlin, while lengthy renovations to its historic house continue.
Luring audiences to the other side of town this season doesn’t appear to be an issue: Even before opening night, virtually the entire run of “Chicago” had sold out.
Through Jan. 27, 2024, at Komische Oper Berlin; komische-oper-berlin.de.