"Chicago", the award-winning musical now in Toronto, boasts a number of things, chief among them the appearance of Chita Rivera. Ms. Rivera starred in the show's original production 24 years ago playing the other leading role -- now she's Roxie Hart and then she was Velma Kelly. Who could have imagined that at 66 years of age anyone would have the energy, the stamina and the guts to strut and sing and clown about the stage in so exposed and vulnerable a role? I don't know the answer, but there's no doubt that Rivera is up there with the goods that reinforce her reputation as the greatest gypsy of them all. I saw the show in its first life, when Rivera teamed up with the legendary Gwen Verdon, and they proved that two aging broads could give better than they got. (In a business where youth and glamour serve to torment Nature, the Rivera-Verdon coupling was proof that pre-judging is only for those without imagination.)
Based on the play of the same name, written by Maurine Dallas Watkins in 1926, this Kander-Ebb-Fosse "musical vaudeville" first played Broadway in 1975. Its reception then was less than unqualified: another musical, "A Chorus Line", had just opened to extraordinary public and critical acclaim. Secondly, and as important, Bob Fosse's relentless cynicism and sour observations of the hypocrisy that rules the world made the evening hard to enjoy and difficult to swallow. In an industry that demands excellent word-of-mouth opinion to keep the seats bum-filled, "Chicago" managed a respectable 898 performances before it closed. However, the show's reputation was based more on its star power than its overall appeal. (The score, which I judge to be the finest element in the whole endeavour, was well served by an original recording that quickly gained cult status, and wins my vote as the best of the entire Kander-Ebb repertoire.)
In 1996 the current version opened in New York, winning critical raves that consistently suggested the show had finally come into its proper time and place. America had been through the O.J. Simpson trial, and the "Chicago" theme -- Justice is a circus and anyone can be bought for a price -- struck a deep and responsive chord with the public. What had been too honest and too frank in the mid-70's -- Vietnam and Watergate had not yet become historical reference points -- was, by the mid-90's, a fact of daily life.
The show continues to run to full houses on Broadway, something very rare for a revival, and the current climate of Clinton-Lewinsky undoubtedly contributes to the timeliness of this satirical broadside.
But what of the show itself and the local production?
Trimmed of much of the book's original dialogue, the evening showcases the smart score -- pastiche is used here as a comment on the play's themes and, therefore, transcends mere cleverness -- and Ann Reinking's Fosse-inspired choreography. A cast of 19 is backed by a band of 15. The performers come and go, sometimes sitting along the side of the stage to watch the scenes, and little more than a chair or two is used as setting. They perform their numbers and deliver snappy banter straight out, avoiding any effort to relate what they are saying or singing to anyone on the stage. (This technique works most of the time, but the cool tone wears itself out by the end, and we long for just a little genuine connection between performer and audience.)
Of the score, only Velma's songs "I Can't Do It Alone" and "When Velma Takes the Stand" misfire. Each one is fine, though the concept of each one is far superior to the staging, but they tend to cancel each other. The latter song doesn't tell us anything we need to know, and the repeated metaphor serves only to suggest that the second act needed filling out, or that the performer requested another feature number. But this is a minor quibble. The fact is that the score is a standout and the revival's success has reinforced the achievement that was originally overlooked.
What is most surprising about the production is the relative lack of dancing. It is true that the ensemble rarely stops moving, almost always in some Fosse-induced clump of throbbing bodies, but the lingering image is of tableaux and self-conscious composition rather than high-powered show dancing. In "Chicago" Fosse, here re-imagined by Reinking, worked with bodies as living, breathing sculptures. There is hardly a spontaneous moment in the evening, and though this is part of the plan, it becomes wearying by the final number. We certainly marvel at the invention of body parts intertwining and criss-crossing the stage, but the choreography on its own announces a facile and essentially empty centre. This is punctuated in the final duet, "Hot Honey Rag", when the two ladies dance in front of a tinsel curtain -- the moment wants to be electric, but it amounts to far less than the numbers that preceded it.
The cast is slick and confident. Stephanie Pope plays opposite Rivera, and her endless legs get a hell of a workout before she shares the final bow. Ernie Sabella, as Roxie's hapless husband, is endearing; Michael Berresse, playing the sleazoid lawyer, Billy Flynn, combines easy throwaway with a smooth singing voice. He lacks the attack and the edge that might better define the character, but his effortless presence is a welcome balance to the overcharged and near-volcanic power of Marcia Lewis, the prison matron. Ms. Lewis, who originated the role in the '96 revival, either delights in overstatement or has been encouraged to hammer her lines until the audience all but cringes in response.
The ensemble of singers and dancers lives up to the Fosse embodiment of what show dancing is about -- pushing the body to its limits, exploring infinite space and providing a future for chiropractors near and far.
But for all the strengths of this touring production, and they are many, it is Chita Rivera's presence that illuminates the stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre most of all. In her we see the living spirit of what musical theatre can achieve and what the individual can endure as it aspires to surpass its own limitations. In Ms. Rivera we also glimpse the possibility that we can deal with Time not as an adversary, but as a force that permits us to realize our fullest potential.
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