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Editor's Note: >For a second look at the show after major cast changes go here. If these reviews were rated on a 1 to 10 scale, Chicago would be a 10+. And if there were a Tony for reawakening audiences to the true mission of a good musical--tunes integrated into an original and durable book, staged to showcase top talent-- this dynamite new-old show should win hands down. The recent City Center "Encores" concert production was not a fluke. This larger but still intimate extravaganza seems slated for a long second life at its original home, the Richard Rodgers theatre.
Set as it is in a vaudeville milieu, the story of two 1920's "jazz babies" Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly opens with a master of ceremonies announcing what it's all about: "murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery." Of course what it's also about is sensational dancing, singing, acting...and, fun! No razzle-dazzle mechanical props, just the razzle-dazzle of a company of gifted performers delivering two hours and twenty minutes of show-stopping numbers that includes Billy and Company's witty "Razzle Dazzle."
The satire that pervades Fred Ebb's terrific lyrics is as crisp as the audience's enthusiastic and constant handclaps. The all too timely skewering of celebrity worship and justice is caught to perfection in John Lee Beatty 's sophisticated minimalist set. Its key "props" are ladders at either side of the stage as visible metaphors for the ups and downs in the fortunes of Roxie and Velma. There are also two giant gold frames, one slanted to create a jury box for the band and one encircling the stage and its cast of frauds and finaglers, villains and victims. The bells and whistles and handstands are all there, but they come from the exuberance of the performers. And what a group of troupers they are!
As directed by Walter Bobbie and smartly costumed in all-black by William Ivey Long, everybody shines— from the leads to the secondary players to the company. They blaze their own trail in the footsteps of the able and impressive original cast which included Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Ohrbach. Ann Reinking, the star and choreographer, (and the original ingenue), gives ample proof that older often is better. She adds bravura comedic brilliance to her established credentials as a choreographer and dancer. Her Roxie is greedy, ridiculous as a comic strip and vulnerable, (as when she sings "I'm older than I ever intended to be"). Bebe Neuwirth's tough-talking, high stepping Velma is the perfect second wannabe vaudevillian-killer who is usurped by Roxie in the fickle public spotlight. James Naughton's Billy Flynn is properly slick and manipulative and his singing voice is as good as his acting.
In the minor parts that make major contributions, there's Joel Grey with his nforgettable "Mister Cellophane." Not to be overlooked are Marcia Lewis as the greedily accommodating prison matron and that wanderer off the operatic stage, D. Sabella, as sob sister reporter Mary Sunshine.
Above all Chicago exemplifies the collaborative spirit that has imbued our most innovative musicals. John Kander and Fred Ebb hold a well-deserved place in the top canon of musical collaborators. Ann Reinking's choreography keeps Bob Fosse alive as her partner and mentor. And of course there's the superb interplay between stars and co-stars, stars and secondary players and company. The "We Both Reached for the Gun" number in which Billy the cynical legal eagle plays Edgar Bergen to fame-smitten Roxi as his ventriloquist's dummy is a brilliant case in point. The delightful "Class" duet between Velma and Matron is another.
Critics often have at least a quibble or two about missed beats and other deficits of a production. But there are no quibbles. There isn't a single missed beat. Instead, one comes away from Chicago humming and heartened that the American musical stage is alive and well. Unless we miss our guess, New York will be a Chicago town for a long time. And video stores better prepare for an onslaught of requests for Bob Fosse's now classic All That Jazz. The out-of-circulation Ginger Rogers non-musical movie Roxie Hart may even make it back to some form of golden oldie life.