When a production has been running for as long as Chicago has—over 26 years on Broadway—there’s an expectation that it might have become a dusty museum piece, but this one continues to razzle dazzle ’em eight shows a week. One element that helps to keep this Tony-winning revival so vital is its frequent cast changes in key roles, often with headline-grabbing names. Last year saw Angelica Ross and Pamela Anderson take on Roxie Hart, while many New York theatregoers are currently heading to the Ambassador to catch two-time RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon as “the mistress of murderers’ row” whose door is always wide open for a bribe, Matron “Mama” Morton.
Having witnessed her trio of genius “Snatch Game” creations on Drag Race and caught her holiday shows with BenDeLaCreme, I knew she wouldn’t disappoint in the role, but I hadn’t expected her to enthrall quite like this. When she first enters as Mama, with only the orchestra behind her, she commands the stage with ease, going on to make the most of every moment physically and vocally; bringing impressive musical range not just to her singing, but to her idiosyncratic delivery of the dialogue too. Her trouser-suited, flame-haired Mama is delightfully butch with a slice of camp. Displaying her glamour like armour and valuable currency, she’s effortlessly powerful and cutthroat, even a little dangerous, but you can feel how much she cares for the murderesses in her charge underneath it all. Jinkx makes some enjoyably bold choices with her character work, which is detailed and frequently hilarious, but she also sent chills down my spine and turned the mood sombre as Mama watches the “not guilty” inmate Hunyak (Christine Cornish) exit the stage for the final time to do her “Hungarian Rope Trick”.
Although Jinkx only has two numbers as Mama—the Act I suggestive solo showstopper “When You’re Good to Mama” and the ironically crass yet wistful Act II duet with Velma Kelly (Lana Gordon) “Class”—she makes an indelible impact on the entire show. Ms Monsoon thrills as she belts, holds those notes, and throws in some business with a pocket watch as she waits for her enraptured fans, old and new, to settle so that she be heard over their cheers and applause.
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s now classic vaudeville-inspired music and lyrics, embedded in Ebb and Fosse’s book, not only hold up but seem to have a renewed relevance every time I see the show with their satirical look at media manipulation and sensationalism, and the speed and ruthlessness with which the news cycle moves on.
With no set changes, this is a visually minimal, sleek production that draws attention to the details—like the inflection of a wrist, the gentle walk of a finger down a thigh, or the sensual thrust of hip—in Ann Reinking’s choreography, based on Fosse’s iconic original movements. The concert-style setting also keeps us focused on the triple threat cast’s first-rate performances. Lana Gordon and Charlotte d’Ambrose are a joy to watch play off each other as prison frenemies Velma and Roxie; R. Lowe continues to deliver exceptional work and show off his operatic and comedy chops after 15 years of playing Mary Sunshine; Michael Scirrotto is hysterical as every member of The Jury; Evan Harrington brings a lump to the throat with his “Mister Cellophane” as the much put-upon Amos; and James T. Lane oozes charm as the smooth operating lawyer Billy Flynn. Safe to say, Jinkx Monsoon is in some very fine company as she makes her electrifying, unmissable Broadway debut. I can’t wait to see which role she tackles next.
By James Kleinmann
Jinkx Monsoon appears as Mama Morton in Chicago the musical at Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre (219 W. 49th Street, New York) in a limited engagement through Sunday, March 26th, 2023. Tickets are on sale now at chicagothemusical.com.
Watch our exclusive interview with Jinkx Monsoon ahead of her run in Chicago on Broadway: