In 1996, Denis Jones booked his second Broadway credit as a swing in the original cast of the revival of Chicago. At the time, Walter Bobbie’s vision—carried over from its bow as part of City Center’s Encores! season—was a vast departure from Bob Fosse’s original. Bobbie stripped down the musical; everything was spare. Today, the sultry black of fishnets and sheer and lace seem inextricable from Chicago. Yet, Jones had his own vision for the musical about the merry murderesses of the Cook County jail.
The now director-choreographer realizes that vision in his production of the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse musical at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Jupiter, Florida. Jones has savored the experience of digging into the material with a 2020 viewpoint. “What it has to say about our culture and how it examines our obsession with celebrity, just so many of our cultural problems are really laid bare in this musical in a way that’s both delightful but also really thought-provoking,” says Jones. Not to mention, “It’s such a good score.”
Here, Jones digs into the details about his fresh vision, new choreography, and more for the production running through February 2.
On Choreographing New Movement:
“I have the greatest respect for that choreography. I think it’s brilliant. I think creating good choreography is challenging in and of itself, whether or not you are discovering movements with an eye on rejecting the movement that you already know, or you’re just creating something that is brand new with no reference point. Because the music is so inspiring, I found it relatively easy to create my own dance language to it. What I feel really passionately about is that the tone of the musical, which is very much something that it has been established by the writers, including Bob Fosse, who has a co-writer, as you’re honoring the intention of these musical numbers, the intention of the piece, I find it easy to create new dance language. Every moment of this has a very clear point of view that is very Bob Fosse, and yet the movement is all my own.
“The musical is obviously composed of a series of in one vaudeville turns of various styles that celebrate iconic vaudeville acts, the clown act and the ventriloquist act, Sally Rand’s fan dance, all of those kinds of acts are used to comprise this series of vaudeville terms that is the musical. It’s how we learn about these characters, either how they see themselves or how they would like them to see themselves, or how they would like the world to see them.
“The kinds of numbers that are in the show are all over the map. So I try to choreograph each number in a way that is distinctive to that moment in the show. The movement in ‘All That Jazz,’ which feels slightly more contemporary, is quite different from the movement in ‘All I Care About Is Love,’ which has a very Ziegfeld-meets-burlesque kind of vibe to it. ‘Me and My Baby’ [with the new design] is slightly cartoony-y and also a little creepy, which feels tonally correct. ‘Razzle Dazzle’ is very much about slight of hand and when I was a kid, I did magic. I would bore my family with my magic show. I thought it would be fun to take [the number] in a slightly more magic-heavy direction, so I built a series of tricks into the number that are really very simple but effective. It just drives the point home. There’s this great trick where 16 hats fall from the sky and then the actors just grab them out of the air and put them on their heads and go into this kickline.”
On Finding This Chicago’s Style:
“These kinds of numbers that are very much in one for the audience, and that have a very thick layer of showbiz lacquer over the top of them. These are numbers that are created very much to be delivered into the lap of the audience. All of the movement is for them, brightly lit and very showbizzy. It is athletic. I try to discover movement that feels timeless. It’s certainly inspired by dance styles, show business dance styles that existed in the 1920s but also has a slightly more contemporary lens over the top of it. So hopefully it stylistically exists in no particular decade, and yet has a wink to the 1920s.”
On Casting His Velma and Roxy:
“They’re unbelievable. When you have dancers that are of that caliber, I’m so inspired by them and how they approach movements that there is a level to which we are discovering that movement together. They’re just dynamite, both of them, and a real blessing for this process.”
On a Vibrant, Colorful Design:
“Adam Koch, who’s doing the sets, and I had some conversations about what the show explores. What are the themes of the show? What are they saying about our society, and how are they saying it? Obviously, there’s this intersection between real life and show business that the show sits in the center of. What he’s created, along with Corey Pattak, who is doing the lights, and Andrea Hood, who is doing the clothes, is a world that’s somewhere between a jail and the bones of a theatrical space, which allows us to shift between those two worlds constantly. We’re able to swing from the Cook County jail into these very abstract, theatrical, brightly lit, colorful, shiny, sparkly environments on a dime—you feel the impact of that shift which is really exciting—plus, I love costume tricks. I’m always interested in trick dresses or costumes that transform in a second.”
On Making Chicago Today:
“The musical is about criminals, is about these morally bankrupt, cold-blooded murderers, people who have shot people or a number of people. There’s a lot of violence that is built into the play, and re-reading it and going into this production, we receive gun violence in a different way now. It was not my intention to depict these violent acts in any way that was literal or insensitive, or that would rob from what is actually extremely funny about the show, and witty and buoyant. I did not want to rob the musical of any of that. I did feel like there were a couple of moments in the show where I just wanted to remind the audience that these are about the reality of these crimes.”
On Chicago’s Lesson:
“When I did it, everyone said, ‘Oh, it’s so relevant, based on the OJ trial.’ Now… 20 years ago, we didn’t have Facebook or any kind of social media or YouTube or reality television, or all of these platforms that give people access to some level of celebrity didn’t really exist then. So the way the show feels now, and the way so much of it lands in a different way is really remarkable. It’s an incredibly well-crafted and surprisingly relevant musical.
“The meta-experience of being seduced by the show of Chicago, and ending up falling in love with these cold-blooded murderers and actually wanting them to succeed, is exactly what the musical is satirizing. Our culture does that, and we lose track of our own moral compass in doing so. You value the love of 5,000 Facebook friends—who you don’t even know—over the love from one person who actually cares for you. There’s this moral imbalance that I feel like the musical is exploring as the musical does that to its audience as they’re watching it. This is the coolest musical in the world to work on.”