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Chicago reinvented itself a while back, stripping down and coming clean about its deliciously cynical worldview. It caught us at just about the moment that something billed as the Trial of the Century was busy reinforcing all the musical’s arguments about the trouble our sick society has distinguishing celebrity from criminal notoriety. So slick and seductive is Kander & Ebb’s musical, so spare and sexy is Walter Bobbie’s dark, minimalist production, that we can laugh at the tabloid culture it skewers, knowing all the while that we’re the consumers who keep the pulp presses turning. The revival, with Bebe Neuwirth and choreographer Ann Reinking stalking across the stage as the miniskirted murderesses Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, set Broadway on fire, and the tour’s first swing through Washington briefly made the capital a more sinfully interesting place than even Monica could manage.
Now, three years and 11 resident companies later, the revival has acquired more than a little of the shallow flash it both celebrates and sneers at. Television luminaries of dubious wattage front its touring company, on the assumption that the rubes in the hinterlands won’t plant their butts in the seats unless they know they’ll find a familiar face among the fishnets. The Broadway cast is similarly augmented with distressing regularity by the likes of Sandy Duncan, Ute Lemper, and Marilu Henner. There’s a Las Vegas company, fer Chrissakes, installed in one of those supposedly chic new showrooms at one of those supposedly chic new megacasinos, with Chita Rivera, of all the redoubtable figures, belting John Kander’s brassy numbers in the general direction of the drunken gambling masses. The production has become such an unapologetic cash cow that hardly anyone would blink at this point if the producers brought in Grease alumna Rosie O’Donnell for a four-week prison-matron cameo. What, as said world-weary, money-grubbing, raunch-reveling turnkey laments so lavishly in Act 2, ever happened to class?
Well, we are talking about a satirical musical celebration of murderous jazz chippies and their slick lawyer, so it’s hard to argue that Chicago ever had much of what we traditionally think of as class. But it’s damn sure got brass—lots of it, and in all the right places—and it’s got a score to die for. Nearly a week after a decidedly second-rate performance at the National Theatre, the defiantly nasty rhythms of “Cell Block Tango” continue to insinuate themselves at odd moments, so something’s still working.
Chiefly, it’s the Kander & Ebb tunes, which never miss whether they’re parodying traditional forms (the faux-bitter ballad “Funny Honey”), proving that they can play within them (“Razzle Dazzle”), or playing both ends against the middle (“Class,” in which coarse lyrics, broad irony, and surpassingly lyrical tunesmithing all find themselves in bed together doing unspeakably pleasant things). The score flirts shamelessly with the Charleston (“When Velma Takes the Stand”) and soft-shoes in the direction of Sinatra (“All I Care About is Love”), but it never forsakes or forgets the shivery, sexy thrill that only a big Broadway number can send up the spine of a musical theater junkie: If there’s a better opening number than “All That Jazz,” I’ve never seen it.
The hip-swiveling, finger-flicking moves Ann Reinking puts on the bones of those numbers are simultaneously as sexy as the subject demands and as knowingly weary of sex as the times require, while steering carefully this side of becoming more stylized than a ’90s audience can stand. Much of the credit for Chicago’s appeal, of course, goes to Reinking’s late mentor/lover Bob Fosse, who choreographed and directed the original, but credit Reinking for restaging the dances “in the style of” Fosse without taking that style further than necessary.
Dance captain Roxane Carrasco has kept the company now at the National commendably sharp on those numbers—which only pointed up the less-than-committed performance Vicki Lewis (late of NBC’s News Radio) turned in last Thursday as Velma. The pleasant surprise was that she’s got the vocal chops to handle tunes like “Jazz” once they move up into the solid center of her register; the disappointment, at least when I saw her, was that she’s weak and breathy in the growly lower ranges where most of her numbers begin. The tour’s diligent publicity agents were spreading the illness word late last week, and reports had Lewis and her colleagues in better form at the official opening last Wednesday, so perhaps they’d overtaxed themselves for the gala audience and slacked off the next night. Still, the sold-out house that sat through the show I sat through might reasonably have expected a tighter show than it got.
Robert Urich, he of Vega$ and UPN’s Love Boat sequel, pretty much walks through his performance as supershark Billy Flynn, relying less on the character’s much-discussed facility for razzle-dazzle than on a kind of good-natured, broad-shouldered Midwestern charm; the script doesn’t give the jury the option of not being swayed, but we’re free to deliver a harsher verdict.
As was the case last time the tour came to Washington, the surprise comes in the role of Roxie Hart, the heat-of-passion murderess who counts on Flynn to get the headlines that will get her off and get her a spot on a vaudeville marquee. Last time, understudy Belle Callaway stepped in for an injured Charlotte D’Amboise and blew the back doors off the theater. (She later got a well-deserved shot at a stretch on Broadway.)
This time, it’s Nana Visitor, another of the touring company’s TV stars. (In fairness to all concerned, it should be said that some of the prime-time personalities Chicago has put front and center have at least some theater in their backgrounds—or even in their blood. I’m not sold on the idea of Sandy Duncan, but some found her Roxie among the hottest Broadway has seen. And both Lewis and Visitor worked in theater before they got their small-screen gigs; Visitor, in fact, is the daughter of one of Fosse’s choreographic colleagues.) Granted, it’s not entirely possible to shut out the vision of a body-suited Visitor doing her Major Kira thing somewhere out near Deep Space Nine. But of the three central characters, she’s the one with the biggest share of that immediately identifiable whatever-it-is that can still command an audience’s attention when there’s a stage full of buff chorus boys barely in their tight pants. (“Those are my boys,” she giggles at the end of “Roxie,” and we’re glad that her boys are getting their moment in the spotlight, yes we are.)
We may be likewise grateful for Ray Bokhour, who gets Roxie’s nebbishy husband, Amos, and his big number, “Mr. Cellophane,” just right; and Carol Woods, who has the pipes and the plush and the warmth to make Mama Morton more than the cheap Samuel Z. Arkoff caricature she can sometimes be. The two of them prove that while Chicago has a lot to do with sex appeal, it always works best when it’s about theatrical professionalism. CP