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Chicago is one of those shows that suffers from over-familiarity. It’s the longest-running American musical in Broadway history, and the second longest-running Broadway musical ever. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards during its original run and won six when it was revived in 1996 with Bebe Neuwirth at the helm. The 2002 film adaptation made a respectable box office and snagged the Academy Award for Best Picture. All this to say, when you see Chicago, it better snap your garters right off.
“Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it / And the reaction will be passionate,” goes the line from “Razzle Dazzle,” but in the Keegan Theatre’s production, there are only a few flashes to be found. Though this production suffers from some inflated expectations, the game cast makes it work and provides plenty of fun throughout.
In case you missed the Chicagos of yore, the plot concerns Roxie Hart, an unhappily married former chorus girl who murders her lover when he tries to walk out on her. She’s arrested and taken to the Cook County Jail, where she forms a rivalry with vaudeville star and fellow murderess Velma Kelly as the two fight for press coverage and the services of defense attorney Billy Flynn.
Individually, both slaying ladies are a treat to watch. Maria Rizzo lends a brightly unhinged sociopathy to her Roxie, while Jessica Bennett is clearly having a ball as Velma, and ramps up the character’s spunkiness instead of playing her as a straightforward femme fatale. The rivalry between the two women is the heart and soul of the show, but as great as the individual performances are, the fiery antagonism between the two doesn’t really gel until the very final number.
Also lacking oomph are some of the numbers that are supposed to be barn burners. The opening classic “All That Jazz” feels a bit tepid, falling just short of painting the town and never quite reaching the fever pitch that sets the play alight. “Razzle Dazzle” is similarly reserved, and while everyone on stage can tap, acrobatics aren’t everybody’s strong suit. Fortunately, the ensemble and supporting characters all get other moments to shine. Chicago is a funny play, and the cast has good comic timing, even with jokes you can see coming from a mile away. Kurt Boehm cuts a great Billy, particularly in his introductory number, playing up the sleaziness rather than the suavity of the character. As Matron Mama Morton, Rikki Howie Lacewell lends some gravity to the proceedings, as well as some truly powerful pipes. And the one moment of sobriety in the show comes from Michael Innocenti, Roxie’s long-suffering but supportive husband Amos. He performs a gripping version of “Mister Cellophane” that conveys Amos’ barely suppressed rage.
The production benefits from the intimate space of the Keegan, where the performers are so close to the audience that the front row risks receiving a high kick right to the kisser. Though the aisles are utilized for Billy’s entrance, they aren’t again, and not using them for some of the more show-stopping numbers feels like a missed opportunity to make the action truly immersive. Tucking the band on the upper level is a neat idea, placing jazz itself in the center of the action.
The saving grace of Chicago is its classic songs. Because one song flows directly into the next, the production gains momentum. Though there are fits and starts throughout, that momentum reaches its peak and the show totally sticks the landing. The finale number is a fantastic showcase of the cast’s dancing abilities and the band’s instrumentals. If only they had been there since the top of Act 1.
At Keegan Theater to April 14. 1742 Church St. NW. $45–$55. (202) 265-3767. keegantheatre.com.