In 2007, after six years of debate, "the Seven New Wonders of the World" were announced. It seems they missed one. Shimmying and sashaying into Big D for the first time in five years is the dangerously sexy, glitzy musical sensation "Chicago."
Is there anything more extraordinary than a Broadway musical that doesn’t rely on flying witches, nannies or spiders? Is there any current sensational Broadway production that has reached institution status while remaining relevant and timely? Is there any Broadway show that is audacious enough to perform with no set, virtually no props but instead focuses on the brassy on-stage band, a small handful of bold characters and a stunning dance ensemble of sirens and stud clad in as little cloth as possible?
Has there ever been such a blatantly satirical musical whose two main leads are murderesses? Is there any Broadway show that not only inspired the first musical motion picture to win the Best Picture Oscar in 33 years but whose back-story production is fictionalized in the Bob Fosse-pseudo-biography film "All That Jazz" (1979.) Yep. That’s "Chicago," kids.
The thrilling smash hit "Chicago" made its Winspear Opera House debut Tuesday, August 14, to a pumped up and primed audience who were entirely "Razzled, Dazzled" and slain by the entire "Chicago" killer ensemble of musicians and dancers. Unfortunately there is one huge asterisk to the above sentence, which we’ll discuss later.
Set in the gin-soaked Roaring ’20s of Chicago, the musical is a satire on the legal, judicial and media systems of the time, specifically spotlighting vaudeville wanna-be Roxie Hart. She becomes a media darling after she kills her lover and hires the slickest lawyer in town, Billy Flynn, to defend her.
Flynn also represents dangerously sultry murderess inmate and newspaper luminary, Velma Kelly. Flynn manipulates the newspapers into characterizing Roxie and Velma as sympathetic victims (and headline grabbing personalities} before turning their courtroom trials into literal judicial circuses which acquit both women.
Tracy Shayne, who joins the touring "Chicago" direct from the Broadway production, plays Roxie Hart. Shayne is a showy triple threat, never missing a note, step or line. She unabashedly commands the stage particularly in the "Roxie" number. "Roxie" is a ten-plus minute showpiece where Roxie revels in her newfound stardom. The numbers include an extended snazzy monologue, shameless jokes, and a line of barely clad beefy background dancers (or "boys" as Roxie calls them.) Most impressively was the utter silence by a transfixed audience during the striking last few bars of the number as Shayne sashays off the stage. Shayne slays the role.
The lead role is clearly Roxie Hart. But the Velma Kelly role has always been the meaty, flashy, glamorous role that usually produces award-winning performances. In this "Chicago’s" only felony (and it’s a first-class offense), Terra C. MacLeod assassinates the role of Velma. MacLeod butchers the famous opening number "All That Jazz." MacLeod is a great hoofer, but she nearly kills the show with her off-pitch singing and her homicidal acting. MacLeod’s bio lists a long-standing history as Velma in "Chicago." Maybe she is used as Velma when they bus in the deaf children to see a Broadway show.
Popular actor John O’Hurley ("Seinfeld," "Dancing With The Stars") is a sexy, impressive Billy Flynn. The silver fox performer’s voice has a magnificent quality. O’Hurley has played Flynn on Broadway so it’s not surprising that he has an arresting stage presence and uses his voice and facial expressions to scrim the cream off to milk every line.
Jailhouse matron Mama Morton, Kecia Lewis-Evans, is both hilarious and enthralling. If the house ushers opened both the Winspear and Wylie theater doors you could hear her belting "When You’re Good to Mamma" across the street at the Wylie in perfect pitch.
Sympathetic audience favorite Amos Hart (Roxie’s loyal dupe of a husband) is played by Ron Orbach who could make you cry while singing "Mr. Cellophane" if you weren’t applauding his performance.
Speaking of applauding, if you’re a "Chicago" aficionado, as the majority of the audience at opening night was, your hands are going to be red from clapping and your throat sore from whooping. This "Chicago" literally stops the show dead, repeatedly in the middle of the several songs, rewarding the performers for their remarkable work. Additionally, applause greeted the first few bars of many of the classic Kander and Ebb songs including: "All That Jazz," "The Cell Block Tango," "We Both Reached For The Gun," "Mr. Cellophane," "Razzle Dazzle" and "Nowadays."
It’s impossible to deliberate about "Chicago" without considering the uber-talented choreographer/director Bob Fosse. Fosse both directed and choreographed the 1975 "Chicago" and received a Tony nomination for his work. The 1996 revival was directed by Walter Bobbie but more importantly to the Fosse legacy, the choreography was developed "in the style of Bob Fosse" by Ann Reinking, who was both Fosse’s dance muse and love interest (she also performed the revival’s Roxie and is prominent in the film "All That Jazz".)
Fosse developed a dance style that is immediately recognizable a quarter century later. Fosse’s jazz infused style was pure sexuality in dance shoes. Signature moves included turned-in knees, sideways shuffling, rolled soldiers, jazz hands, bowler hats and enough glitz and glamour to hit every beat with a kick, hip or snap.
The back-story of "Chicago" would make a great B.A. thesis. "Chicago" was nearly annihilated in it’s initial 1975 Broadway premiere because of the juggernaut "A Chorus Line." "Chicago’s" current legendary status dates back to the 1996 revival, which coming off the bloodshed of the O.J. Simpson trial, was praised for it’s relevance and timeliness with it’s theme of "murderer as celebrity." In today’s era of "trash TV/I’ll do anything to get on TV," "Chicago’s" relevance is as timely as ever. (Think Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, idiots from an Atlantic shore, any Bachelor or Bachelorette, anyone who lives in a Big Brother house, Judge Judy, Dick or Harry or any young woman whose last name begins with K).
"Chicago" has established itself as a Broadway institution by sheer numbers alone. The 1975 original premiere earned 10 Tony nominations (0 wins). The 1996 revival received 8 Tony nominations with 6 wins. The 1996 revival is still playing on Broadway making it the longest running revival in Broadway history.
As of mid-July 2012, Broadway’s "Chicago" had played more than 6,500 performances making it the 4th longest running show in Broadway history and the #1 longest American produced Broadway show of all time. Currently, Broadway’s "Chicago" is only about 300 performances away from dispatching Broadway’s third all time leader "Les Miserables."
"Chicago" is Murder, Greed, Corruption, Violence, Exploitation, Adultery and treachery. You might just go to your grave with regrets if you pass up your opportunity to see this American classic.