AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Fred Ebb & Bob Fosse
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Presented by American Musical Theatre of San Jose
At the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose / (888) 455-7469

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"Chicago," the Kander-Ebb musical that made its Broadway debut in 1975, may have seemed too hard-edged then, overshadowed by "A Chorus Line," but by 1996, when a revival brought it back to the Great White Way, audiences had caught up with its focus on celebrity defendants and "Razzle Dazzle" defense attorneys. It subsequently went on to win six Tony Awards.

A touring production of this revival, directed by Walter Bobbie, has come to American Musical Theater of San Jose with the same high production values seen in the 1996 revival when it first went on the road. However, what has made this show so enduring from the very first are memorable songs with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, along with a book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, who also directed and choreographed the original production. Fosse's influence is still strong in the current production, for Ann Reinking, a longtime associate of the late genius, choreographed the revival, and Gary Chryst has re-created the dances. Hence they have the Fosse signature moves -- tilted heads, angled arms, thrust hips -- all performed with athletic precision by a terrific ensemble.

John Lee Beatty's set design, accented by Ken Billington's lighting, also is patterned after the original, placing the orchestra (conducted by Vincent Fanuele) onstage and using only bentwood chairs along with ladders on each side of the stage. William Ivey Long's costumes, mainly in black and white, are especially sexy for the dancers.

The principal cast members are all likable and physically right for their roles, but singing isn't necessarily the strong suit for all of them. Gregory Harrison as Billy Flynn, the slick attorney who knows exactly how to manipulate the press and jury to his clients' advantage, has intermittent pitch problems, especially in his first song, "All I Care About." Bianca Marroquín as Roxie Hart also strays from pitch, but less frequently and less obviously. R. Bean's falsetto for the role of sob-sister journalist Mary Sunshine also misses a few notes, but the portrayal is fine. Brenda Braxton has a sultry voice and streetwise manner that are well suited for her role as Velma Kelly. Carol Woods as "Mama" Morton, the Cook County Jail matron, could easily tear the house down with her "When You're Good to Mama," but she nicely underplays it both vocally and dramatically. She and Braxton later team up for the hilarious "Class," which was cut from the movie, a big loss. P.J. Benjamin is appropriately humble as Amos Hart, Roxie's loyal sad-sack husband, who sings the bouncy but poignant "Mister Cellophane."

Even though this production lacks some of the star power of the original production, which featured Gwen Verdon as Roxie, Chita Rivera as Velma and Jerry Orbach as Billy, or the 1996 revival, which starred Reinking as Roxie and Bebe Neuwirth as Velma, the choreography, staging and -- above all -- songs and book make it highly entertaining.

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