Well over a decade ago, while I was still an aspiring and unproduced musical dramatist, Stephen Sondheim generously mentored me for a time (as he has--just as generously--a number of others). Among the many invaluable bits of advice he gave me was, "The biggest danger is getting used to things." At the time, we were discussing shows in their rehearsal and preview periods, and, of course what he was warning about was the trap of complacency at a time when change may be required. Of letting the repetition of familiar material lull a writer into a false sense of security--or create an environment in which s/he becomes blocked, unable to rethink or revise.
But I think, in a way, that wisdom applies to audiences too. The revival of the musical "Chicago" is being heralded now as a great gem, under-appreciated in its time (1975) as a work of art, though it did sustain a healthy commercial run.
But I wonder if "Chicago" is truly any better now than it was then. The first impression of just about everybody I know--including myself--was that "Chicago" was a very slick and savvy bit of show bizzness indeed...but empty at the core, and in the end not quite as satisfying as you might have hoped, given all the high-octane talent involved. But a funny thing happened to me during the show's initial run (coincidentally at the 46th Street--now the Richard Rodgers--theatre, precisely where the revival is playing now). For I had occasion to see it several more times: once when Liza Minelli temporarily stepped in for Gwen Verdon, then again when Ann Reinking, Lenore Nemetz and Rex Everhart took over for Verdon, Chita Rivera and Barney Martin (Jerry Orbach stayed with the show for its entire run). By the third time, I knew the album by heart, I'd memorized the staging (as only a stage-struck college kid can), and I could recite whole chunks of the script.
And in the repetition--I'd warmed to the show's chill. Become comfortable with it. Accepted it as part and parcel of the entity. Become, in fact, quite fond of it. Even defensive about it. I never forgot my first impression, but knowing what to expect with each subsequent visit made me less hardassed about holding to it.
Better than 20 years later, I think an entire cross section of theatre aficionados is experiencing a similar sense of homecoming. Those who saw the original are reveling in the nostalgia. Those who never saw the original, but knew the album, are grateful for a new production to fill in the blanks.
And it sure doesn't hurt that O. J. Simpson got off.
"Chicago" is about chorus girl Roxie Hart (Ann Reinking, reprising her role) who shoots her very illicit lover very dead in the title town of the late 1920s. It's an era in which scandal made stars--and the women's prison to which she is sent to await trial contains several, foremost among them being Velma Kelly (Bebe Neuwirth). And with the right lawyer to get you off, that notoriety can lead to a celebrity career. Or anyway, so believes Roxie when she hires the prince of Razzle Dazzle, Mr. Billy Flynn (James Naughton)...with $5,000 she wheedles out of her poor schnook car-mechanic husband Amos (Joel Grey). Between the career counseling of prison matron "Mama" Morton (Marcia Lewis) and the sympathetic tabloid write-ups by a saccharine columnist named Mary Sunshine (D. Sabella), Roxie can barely keep in mind the fact that she is on trial for her very life. And guilty enough to hang.
The show is performed as a vaudeville, with throat-grabbin', rib-stickin', hard-drivin', hard sellin' tunes by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), choreography by star Ann Reinking, in the style of original director-choreographer Bob Fosse, that's all about sex (or marketing, if you want to look at it that way, which comes to the same thing) and a funny, cynical edge in its libretto by Ebb and Fosse (based loosely on a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins). It glorifies a twisted American dream.
This particular incarnation is borne of the staged concert version performed at City Center as part of the "Encores!" series near the end of last season. Save for the addition of a small elevator in the center of the orchestra shell, what you see at the Rodgers is almost identical to the Encores presentation. Theoretically, and at Broadway prices, one could get justifiably pissed off. There is virtually no color, other than skin tone. The costumes remain but sly variations on a "black tie" presentation: even the sexy, skimpy outfits are black, and everything else is suggestive rather than specific. There is, likewise, only the suggestion of a set by John Lee Beatty (which has the feel, as it did at Encores! of something darkly appropriate cobbled together from available materials), a suggestion which Ken Billington's evocative lighting greatly enhances.
But to play Devil's Advocate...the Encores! staging was quite elaborate for such an event (as if, perhaps, a move to Broadway was always contemplated)...and the original Bob Fosse production--despite some color, some neon lights and a more bells-and-whistles in its set design--was, in philosophy and practical application, almost as spare, almost as stark. It's as if current director Walter Bobbie "channeled" Fosse's imprimatur from the beyond. Unlike any revival of a post-1970 "concept" musical I've ever seen, the new incarnation of "Chicago" is every bit as effective as the original. Mr. Bobbie seems less to have "re-directed" than to have come to grips with the tone of the original and stayed the hell out of its way. (If that sounds like I'm minimizing his contribution, I don't mean it to. There's a lot to be said for a director who knows enough to let a piece speak for itself.)
As for the performances. You can't better Ms. Neuwirth's lethal vamp, Ms. Lewis' butchy prison matron, D. Sabella's cloying mezzo columnist or Mr. Naughton's sly, self-promoting legal-eagle. Each is a laser-bright star turn, definitive and delicious. I have mixed feelings about Mr. Grey's Amos. though. He nails the part all right, along with his song (the mournful, yet showstopping "Mr. Cellophane"), but it nonetheless seems like a turn for a concert, not for a more legitimate run. For, through no fault of his own, Mr. Grey is subversively miscast: you wouldn't believe him as a hapless garage mechanic in a million years, not with that bright, diminutive pixie demeanor. And as for being "a guy you never notice"...under what theatrical circumstance would you not notice Joel Grey? (The beauty of overweight sad sack Barney Martin in the original was that, in fact, he was the character actor we'd seen a guh-zillion times, but never knew by name. Ubiquitous, like wall-paper, and functional, but only when you needed him. [Of course, by real-life professional standards, Mr. Martin was and is quite distinguished and accomplished--but his performance persona and non-star status allowed for the successful illusion: Amos as a non-entity.] When Mr. Martin gave way to Rex Everhart. later in the run, the conceit was, similarly, preserved.)
And I have even more mixed feelings about Ms. Reinking's Roxie Hart. It's an altogether different performance than the one she gave in her twenties, and seems to me a much less natural one. But clearly, too, she has made a conscious choice. Her Roxie here is jittery, full of manners and ticks, almost willfully stupid at times--and she rarely presents you with a moment in which you're not aware of an actress at work. In a show as presentational (even Brechtian) as "Chicago", kitchen-sink realism is hardly the order of the day...but there's still the need to preserve the faux reality of the story, to believe that the behavior of a character is real within the universe as presented. At the moment, Ms. Reinking hasn't quite figured out how to walk that fine line. I think she's exquisitely talented, and I think she may soften the affectations in time--she's already proved herself in the role--but she may need to shake the notion of doing it differently for its own sake. Her own, unvarnished persona is plenty powerful enough to carry the day.
Elsewhere, the musical direction of the onstage orchestra by Rob Fisher is splendid, the ensemble is sharp and sassy and showmanship is present in every moment.
Maybe, then, it's not important whether or not "Chicago" is as good as we're being told--or even as good as we've come to believe. When star lawyer Billy Flynn demonstrates his summation to the jury, he goes: "Then I say, `Yes, you can take Roxie Hart's life. But that won't bring [the murder victim] back.'" He pauses and adds: "That's always news to them."
Maybe so long as "Chicago" is, simply, newsworthy, it's good enough...
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