Chicago, the Bob Fosse musical, first hit the stage in 1975. It told the story of Roxie Hart; cold blooded killer and erstwhile chorus girl with dreams of vaudeville stardom. The revival in 1996 won 6 Tony awards and is still wowing audiences on Broadway. The original play by Maurine Watkins, not a musical, opened on Broadway on December 30 1928. It was a comedy. At that time the tale of murder in Chicago was reporting on current events. That was more than a full year before crime reporter Jake Lingle was famously gunned down on a Chicago street in broad daylight. It was a couple of months before the St. Valentines Day Massacre. It was not quite a year after Ruth Snyder became the first woman to be executed in Sing Sing; with her accomplice Henry Judd Gray taking a seat in the electric chair right after her. It was first filmed as Roxie Hart in 1942 with Ginger Rogers in the title role. That was also not a musical but it did have music and dancing. Renee Zellweger was Roxie in the 2002 musical. You can now see Chicago the Musical at the Keller Auditorium through September 8. Be thankful it has fresh legs.
Skirts were short in the Twenties. In this production they are even shorter, and in some cases nonexistent. There are very few costume changes. This is not about costumes. Most of the scenery is one chair and a couple of ladders. This is not about scenery. Most of the story is carried by the songs. It is not about dialogue; although there is some. What it is about is dancing and singing….and SEX!
Things start with a bang with the song “All That Jazz” featuring Velma and the ensemble. Just to make sure everyone knows that before the word jazz referred to music it was an impolite word for sex; the choreography puts in a hip thrust every time the word jazz comes around in the song. Then there are several bangs as Roxie guns down her lover; much in the style of Bette Davis at the beginning of the movie The Letter. For those who enter late and miss both Velma and Roxie’s entrances wearing not much; the song “Cell Block Tango” will bring them up to speed. It features six murderesses wearing not much who spell out in detail how sex drove them to murder. Things toddle along from there and after another sixteen songs the show is over. The only real tension arises in the second act when one of the six murderesses goes go to the gallows.
Lurking beneath the singing and dancing is the grittier stuff that made this story attractive to Bob Fosse. It is all very cynical. In addition to sex and crime it’s about celebrity and show business and how they all interact. The lawyer Billy Flynn sees that sex and celebrity can trump murder. Velma and Roxie see how sex and celebrity could both get them out of jail and into show business. All three see that the press and the jury can be manipulated and how the public can be buffaloed. No one comes out in this with their very short skirts clean.
The dancing by the ensemble is the strongest part of this production. All the dancers are top notch. Paige Davis as Roxie and Terra C. MacLeod as Velma are both very good. John O’Hurley brings a star presence to the role of Billy Flynn. All three have serviceable voices. His first song includes the ensemble waving very large ostrich plume feathers ala Sally Rand; or here seen to even better effect in the movie Murder at the Vanities. It should also be noted that Murder at Vanities featured a murderess played by Dorothy Stickney who when she confesses says gleefully “…. and then I let him have it!” Miss Stickney was also in the original cast of Chicago in 1928. The best singing is by Carol Woods as the Matron “Mama” Morton. The most interesting singing is by D. Micciche in the role of Mary Sunshine.
Also starring in the production is the orchestra. They are on stage for the entire show on risers from about twenty feet back on the stage. The Conductor is Jack Gaughan. They have a standard big band make up of four brass and three reeds, piano, drummer and a string bass; and for a touch of the Twenties, a second piano ala Ohman and Arden, a tuba, and a banjo. There is a door in the middle of orchestra from which Roxie and others make their first appearances.
Comedy relief is supplied by Todd Buonopane in the role of Roxie’s husband Amos. That includes the joke of Billy Flynn always calling him Andy. That is of course a reference to Amos n’ Andy which debuted on radio in Chicago in 1928. When Amos sang the song “Cellophane” a woman in back of me sang along with him Sotto voce. He began the song after theatrically donning very white gloves. I assume that was a reference to the vaudeville star performer Bert Williams whose most famous song was the similarly themed “Nobody.”
The book is by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Choreography in the original New York revival production is credited to Ann Reinking “In the Style of Bob Fosse.” There is also a credit for “Re-creation of Original Production Choreography” by David Bushman. The most striking nod to Bob Fosse is the use of hats by the chorus boys. Here is Mr. Fosse from the movie My Sister Eileen showing his nice use of a hat in dancing. With him, in the light sport coat, is the dancer Tommy Rall. I was very lucky to study ballet and tap with Tommy in college. You could choose to see Chicago the Musical for no other reason than the excellent ensemble dancing “In the Style of Bob Fosse.”
Chicago plays at the Keller Auditorium through September 8th – for more information, please visit Broadway Across America or give the box office a call at 503-241-1802
Cast in order of appearance
Velma Kelly….Terra C. MacLeod
Roxie Hart….Paige Davis
Fred Casely….Jon-Paul Mateo
Sergeant Fogerty….Christopher VanDenhende
Amos Hart….Todd Buonopane
Matron “Mama” Morton
Billy Flynn….John O’Hurley
Mary Sunshine….D. Micciche
Go-to-Hell Kitty….Ahamicka Benn-Moser
The Doctor….Ian Campayno
The Judge….Christopher VanDenhende
The Bailiff….Thomas Bevan
Michael Harrison….Corey Wright
Court Clerk….Thomas Bevan
The Jury….Ian Campayno
The Chicago Cellblock Orchestra
Violin …James McLennan
Banjo, Mandolin, Ukulele…Max Rees
Alto Sax….Phil Baldino
Tenor Sax….Tim Jensen
Baritone Sax…Don Nelson