Reviewed by Kelly Kleiman
Chicago is a sharp, smart, funny show, and this production shows those qualities to advantage. So what's the problem?
The problem is that virtually everyone on stage is trying too hard. Many of the actors are mugging, while the singers are engaging in vocal gymnastics so strenuous they seem designed less to entertain than to wow the East German judge. Most egregious are the dancers, who've apparently decided that St. Vitus would make a better choreographer than Bob Fosse or his updater/acolyte Ann Reinking.
This is a problem endemic to the road companies of Broadway shows, at least those that land in Chicago. Do cast members think they're more likely to score an original-company slot in some other show if they play so big here they can be seen and heard in New York? Or do they imagine that those of us in the provinces are too slow to get it-whatever "it" is-unless it's underlined and indicated and supertitled in neon lights? Either way, it's one of the most annoying constants of the touring shows: everyone seems to be shouting.
Those who come off best in this production are the ones who resist the temptation to do so. Tom Wopat, playing sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn as he defends a pair of indefensible murders in 1920s Chicago, gives a relaxed, deadpan performance and thus makes a worthy successor to Jerry Orbach, who originated the role in the 1970s. Without that laid-back approach, Flynn's calculated eruptions of passion and conviction would seem genuine, a natural extension of his ordinary persona-and the last thing Flynn should be is genuine. Wopat grasps this, and brings a feather-light touch to his role.
Aptly, given the need for understatement, the other top-notch performance here comes from Kevin Carolan as sad-sack Amos, the cuckolded husband of murderess Roxie Hart. By rendering Amos as invisible as the clear plastic to which he compares himself, Carolan paradoxically steals the show. His every tiny gesture is necessary, and thus noticeable: all he has to do is draw on a pair of white gloves and rock from side to side like a Weeble who'll wobble but he won't fall down, and his 11 o'clock number "Mr. Cellophane" becomes the show's star turn.
By contrast, the talented women who play Hart and her competition Velma Kelly -- Paige Davis and Brenda Braxton -- undermine their own gifts by working too hard. The material is strong, but it's not really necessary for the actresses to dash themselves against it like waves futilely battering a rock. Davis finally comes into her own in the middle of the second act, when dancing supplants acting as her primary activity: unlike her chorus boys, she knows how to embrace a dance instead of struggling with it. This in turns lets the audience embrace her: we can enjoy the comic desperation of the character because we're not alarmed by the real-world desperation of the actor. Likewise Braxton-a strong comic actress with a voice to raise the roof-doesn't really show to advantage until she literally sits down, puts her feet up, and harmonizes with prison matron Mama Morton (Carol Woods, likewise giving it away instead of selling it for the first time all evening) on the superbly rueful "Class" ("Whatever happened to nice manners, and fine morals, and good breeding?/Now every son-of-a-bitch is a snake in the grass/Whatever happened to class?") The best number in the show is the last one: Hart and Kelly in a two-woman dance which-not to put too fine a point on it-is a soft-shoe.
It's always hard making it look easy; but it shouldn't be impossible. If New Yorkers uprooted from their homes find it too taxing, there are plenty of Chicago actors who could manage the job.