Published on August 23rd, 2013 | by Mariesa Bus1
This Music, This Noise, This Heat: CHICAGO Opens in Historic Tacoma Venue with its own Vaudevillian Past
“Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery, — all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts.”
So goes the recognizable introduction to one of the sexiest, scandalous, and sardonic musicals in American history: CHICAGO.
Just saying “Chicago” in the sultry voice it demands conjures images of svelte dancers dressed in black fishnets and heels executing Fosse isolations.
Riotous scandals unfold on the vaudeville stage in dramatic tableaus; characters glimmer and languish in the jail, at the witness stand, and in the spotlight, meet their ends in either vainglorious overnight celebrity or at the gallows.
Then there are the sounds: the wah-wah of a jazz trumpet, the tight tattoo of twenty tap dancers; a bevy of jazz sirens swooning in syncopation to woo a criminal defense lawyer; the bang of the gun both lovers reached for but only one fired.
Hit after hit of jazzy, sizzling song roll over the stage to an audience sure to be stuck with the perfect lines that only the Broadway songwriting team Kander and Ebb could have written. We know this music, this noise, and this heat, and we can’t get enough of any of it.
Easy on the eyes and ears, and but hard on American society’s bad little habits, CHICAGO is full of verve, revenge, show-stopping numbers and fame-hungry characters.
As Director Walter Bobbie puts it, “CHICAGO’s plot was shocking in 1926, cynical and satirical in 1975, and today feels like a documentary.”
Launching the national tour starring John O’Hurley (most known for his role as J. Peterman on Seinfeld) as Billy Flynn, there’s no better place to see this glittering jazz-era production than at Tacoma’s historic Pantages Theater, a formerly vaudevillian venue steeped seeped in its own history of scandal, corruption, and a woman scorned.
The Pantages Theater, built in 1918 by Alexander Pantages, was partially funded with financial assistance from his mistress, Kate Rockwell, also known as “Klondike Kate” or “The Queen of the Yukon.”
Alexander and Kate met in Dawson, Alaska, where Kate had made a fortune as a performer and entertainer on the vaudeville circuit, and Alexander was a struggling waiter at a theater.
Soon they were running a vaudeville theater together, and made enough money to move to Seattle together, marking the beginnings of Pantages’s West Coast theater franchise.
While Kate was performing at a theater in her hometown of Spokane, she received word that Pantages had wed 17-year-old Lois Mendenhall, a vaudeville violinist from a well-to-do family. Kate was shocked, having shared vaudeville billings with the much-younger performer.
Pantages cuttingly announced to the press regarding the nuptials, “It wasn’t until I met Lois that I knew much about good women.”
When questioned by a Seattle Times reporter, he denied ever knowing Kate Rockwell. Kate had a nervous breakdown, sued Alexander for Breach of Contract and “anguish of mind,” and never fully recovered, financially or otherwise.
Relish Tacoma’s vaudevillian roots and enjoy the glitz of CHICAGO at the Pantages:
Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 7:30 pm or Sunday, September 1, 2013 at 3 pm.
Thanks to the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts for permission to repost this article.