Reviewed by Claudia Perry
The 1996 Broadway revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb's masterpiece, Chicago, has elicited some varied reactions. Aficionados of the show and its original production did not cotton to the pared down sets and minimal black costumes. Nor can anyone quibble that the definitive performances by Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon as Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart in the original cast will stand in the annals of Broadway history as paramount to none. I know as I was one of the lucky people to see the Broadway preview (Excepting of course the star turn of Lenore Nimitz who took over as understudy to Ms. Rivera and the revival's stars, Anne Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth who delivered powerhouse performances.) But back in the day, "Chicago" was a show that was way ahead of its time. It was after all originally billed as "A Musical Vaudeville" what with presentational songs, a cynical philosophy and a cold heart.
Based on the true story of the sensational trials of two murderesses who both got off scott free, it tells the tale of murder, greed, and the cult of celebrity in the Roaring 20's. After the Simpson trial and its aftermath, our own collective consciousness has become much more jaded than it ever was in 1975 when this show made its debut. So it seems that life has caught up with art. And with the advent of the filmed version, brilliantly interpreted by Rob Marshall, bolstering the revival - this new interpretation is having a longer run than the original.
That being said, I must admit that I did not mind the simplicity of the black set, nor the sexy black lingerie costumes on both the men and women. As in the original the orchestra remains onstage and a platform comes out of the floor at the opening bearing the character of Velma to sing "All That Jazz", but that's where the similarities end.
The stars of this National Tour are - the brilliant music of Kander and Ebb, the orchestra, which plays the hell out of it and Tom Wopat and Melba Moore. Mr. Wopat walks on stage and we know immediately that he is Billie Flynn the notorious lawyer "who would have defended Jesus Christ and won". What a delight to be in the hands of an actor who can take such command of the stage. And when Mr. Wopat sings, All I Care About with his big, deliciously warm baritone - we are transported. So too with Ms. Moore, who makes her entrance with a cane. Thin, frail and tiny she is still a "big mama" (as Matron Mama Morton) to be contended with for she can wail with the best of them, as she does on When You're Good To Mama. This little lady's still got "the voice" and a whole lot of gravitas to boot. Alas, these seasoned performers are only the supporting players and not on stage with us all night --would that they were. Besides the aforementioned songs the score has the great duet, "Class", well done by Ms. Moore and Terra C. Macleod, the hysterical chorus number Cell Block Tango and the adorable Me and My Babysung by Roxie. (I can still remember Ms. Verdon's version with the bowler hat and white gloves. Why they cut the white gloves, here, I'll never know.) Let's not forget Razzle Dazzle another highlight by Mr. Wopat and When Velma Takes the Stand the "chair dance number" sharply done by Ms. Macleod.
The orchestra cannot be underestimated here as they become part of the show interacting with the performers with little bits of schtick throughout the evening. The musical conductor (Vinny Fanuele) has wisely selected great local talent to augment the musicians that the tour travels with such as Rob Haffly on Reeds and Fred Scott on Trombone.
This restaging of the choreography seemed to lack the original sensual subtlety of Bob Fosse. This version was brasher and bawdier with a lot more leg splits and crotch shots. (Maybe that's why the orchestra plays so well!)
Though Bianca Marroquin as Roxie Hart is a pretty girl with a pleasant voice, she dances without precision and unfortunately cannot hold the attention of the audience during her long underscored monologue. In essence, she's never got us and our interest passes to Velma. Terra C. Macleod (Velma Kelly) in comparison is a disciplined dancer with good comic timing. But even the best technically proficient dancer or singer has to possess something more than craft in order to make us feel what they are emoting. Granted, we are not supposed to really like Roxie nor Velma, but the writers did intend for us to be completely fascinated by their abhorrent behavior. Add to this disappointing list Roxie's husband who in the great number Mr. Cellophane has the one truly sympathetic moment in the show for which I felt no sympathy, and Mary Sunshine who is so overplayed that I don't think it comes as a shock to anyone who she truly is when her wig is removed as it's been telegraphed to us all night.
Kander and Ebb are a tough act to beat and if you liked the movie you will like the show. So go for the music, the chorus in black lingerie and the two seasoned professionals that anchor this production.