And now, ladies and gentlemen, the longest running revival in Broadway history, full of those scintillating sinners, it’s Chicago! This revival of the 1975 John Kander- and Fred Ebb-penned, Bob Fosse-conceived musical began its current iteration on Broadway, albeit at a different theatre, in 1996, and it hasn’t stopped razzling and dazzling audiences ever since.
Though Chicago has been running for 14 years - or maybe because it has been running for 14 years- I had not seen it on stage until yesterday. Of course I’ve seen the movie (I own it, actually,) and of course I know the score, (and I even performed in my high school’s musical theatre class’s rendition of “Razzle Dazzle”), but since it was always there and appeared to be staying for a while, there was never a rush to go see it. So, when my family suggested we go see something when everyone was in town for Thanksgiving weekend (and since I’d taken two of the three members of our party to see American Idiot already and because Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson tickets in our price range were a no-go), I thought, “This is the perfect opportunity to see Chicago.”
I didn’t love it, but I liked a lot of it and thrilled over bits here or there. My favorite part was the Fosse choreography. Ann Reinking (you know, Grace Farrell from Annie, the movie?!?) played Roxie in the show’s original run (succeeding Liza Minnelli who succeeded Fosse’s wife, Gwen Verdon), and when this revival began in October 1996 she starred as Roxie opposite Bebe Neuwirth’s Velma. Reinking, being a great dancer and having worked on many Fosse productions, including the Tony-award wining tribute musical, Fosse, choreographed this revival of Chicago (and won a Tony for it) in “the style of Bob Fosse.” So I guess I didn’t thrill over the Fosse choreography but rather the Fosse-esque choreography. Much as I like fluidity and passion in my dance moves (like in, say, Jerome Robbins’s choreography), there’s something that can be very appealing about Fosse’s isolations and minimalistic dance moves. His style is sexy and slinky... and all that jazz. In fact, at first, watching the dancers roll their hips or tilt their heads during “All That Jazz” I thought they lacked a little energy. But then I got into the rhythm and mood of the show and realized it wasn’t a lack of energy: It was sultry aloofness for these hot shots who’ve seen it all in Chicago. That aloofness is served well by Fosse-esque choreography; it shouldn’t have been anything too showy or too splashy.
And speaking of not being showy or splashy, for a show with a signature number called “Razzle Dazzle,” this production doesn’t have a lot of it. Which is fine by me. The orchestra takes up most of the stage, as they sit in tiered risers overlooking the action on stage and in the audience. Each actor - with, I think, one exception - wears the same costume for the entire show, just picking up a notepad here or a hat there to suggest a different character. This keeps the show flowing, as we’re not waiting for scene changes. It also lends itself to the scrappy can-do attitude of the old vaudeville circuit, the conceptual inspiration for the show.
This brings to light perhaps the biggest difference between the show (at least this revival of the show) and its successful 2002 movie adaptation (starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere). The movie is very sexy - smoke-filled and sultry - while the show is more cartoony - more vaudevillian. My family thought Velma, as played here by understudy Donna Marie Asbury - was a caricature, too much of a cartoon and not real enough. While I understood their point of view and agreed to a degree, I did not view it as a detraction; I thought it worked here. These characters come from or long for the vaudeville circuit. (Example: During “Roxie,” Roxie admits, “Oh, I always wanted to be vaudeville.”) While the movie was sexy, vaudeville isn’t known for sexy, but rather slipping on a banana peel. In fact, if you listen to the revival cast recording, Bebe sounds cartoony - like she’s going for a laugh. Clearly, this was a directing choice. (This revival was directed by Walter Bobbie, who won a Tony for his work here.) I think it works, but I understand the complaint.
Charlotte d’Amboise, daughter of renown dancer Jacques and recent Tony nominee for her turn as Cassie in the most recent revival of A Chorus Line, stars here as Roxie Hart, the chorus girl who shoots her boyfriend when he tries to leave her and gets ratted on by her funny honey hubby, Amos. Roxie winds up in the clink, kept by Matron “Mama” Morton (a scene stealing Roz Ryan), where she meets Velma Kelly, who shot her husband and sister after she caught them “doing number 17, the spread eagle.” Velma is joined by the other merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail. (Their rendition of “Cell Block Tango” is spectacular!) All these ladies are looking for (more than) their 15 minutes of fame, and the slick lawyer, Billy Flynn (Tom Hewitt), is there to help them...for $5,000.
d’Amboise does a nice job as Roxie. She definitely sells the dance numbers, even if her singing and wannabe-Chicago-but-sounds-like-Bronx accent doesn’t quite cut it. A tall, thin, lanky woman, she’s actually the ideal body type for Fosse choreography. Her frame seems to lend itself very well to the angular isolations so closely associated with Fosse dances. I often find bodies like hers, when dancing other choreographic styles, to look awkward as they try to navigate graceful, fluid moves. But here, they look just right doing a shoulder shrug or leg flick.
Finally, one of the elements of this production that I liked the most was the choice to have the actors sitting on the sides of the stage at all times. They were there to watch the show because, as Velma and Roxie and Billy would surely argue, the whole thing’s a “three-ring circus.” And that’s Chicago!
Visit chicagothemusical.com for more information about this revival, the tour, the UK production and to purchase tickets.