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A CurtainUpReview

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.

Book by Fredd Ebb & Bob Fosse
Cast: Velma Kelly--Bebe Newuwirth; Amos Hart--Joel Grey, Billy Flynn---James Naughton, Hunyak--Tina Paul, Martin----Bruce Anthony Davis, Roxie Hart--Ann Reinking, Mrs. Morton---Marcia Lewis, Mary Sunshine--D. Sabella, Fred Casely--Michael Beresse, Mona----Caitlin Carter. Directed by Walter Bobbie
Opened at Richard Rodgers, moved to
Shubert 225 W. 45 St. (212) 239-6200
Opening date 11/16/96

1. Overture
2. All That Jazz
3. Funny Honey
4. Cell Block Tango
5. When You're Good to Mama
6. All I Care About
7. Little Bit of Good
8. We Both Reached for the Gun
9. Roxie
10. I Can't Do It Alone
11. I Can't Do It Alone (Reprise)
12. My Own Best Friend
13. Entr'acte
14. I Know a Girl
15. Me and My Baby
16. Mr. Cellophane
17. When Velma Takes the Stand
18. Razzle Dazzle
19. Class
20. Nowadays
21. Hot Honey Rag
22. Finale

May 19, 1997 Editorial Note: As the end of the 1996-97 season approaches this musical revival and everyone connected with it is the win-win-win story of the season. The show garnered ecstatic reviews, enviable box office sales and enough awards to warrant a special Chicago trophy room, (including CurtainUp's Mega Byte Award for Musical Revival--(book/music/cast/direction/sets/all-audience appeal) While the cast may change, the show is certain to be around next year, not to mention taking its razzle-dazzle to other venues throughout the world. We are therefore adding this background information box for archival purposes--and will add news items periodically to keep it up-to-date.

The Journey from 1926. . .
1926 -- Chicago opened on December 30 at the Music Box Theatre in New York City. It was a satirical tale about a murderess named Roxie Hart whose money-grubbing lawyer so manipulated the press that she was freed to become a vaudeville star. Produced by Sam H. Harris and directed by George Abbott the play ran for 182 performances. It was based on its author Maurine Dallas Watkins's experience as a newspaper reporter assigned to cover a series of Chicago trials of women murderers. The cast featured Francine Larrimore as Roxie Hart, Juliette Crosby as Velma and Isabelle Winlock as Mrs. Morton (no "Mama" in this version.
1928--Watkins' play was made into a movie, retaining its title, Chicago
1942--another film based on the play, this time named Roxie Hart, starred Ginger Rogers as Roxie and the debonair Adolphe Menjou as her greedy lawyer.
195?-- Choreographer Bob Fosse set into motion a long process for obtaining the right to turn Ms. Watkins play into a muscial.
1975-- The rights issue settled at last, Fosse and the songwriting team of (John) Kander and (Fred) Ebb set to work on the musical adaptation of the Watkins'play. They jettisoned much of the newspaper background in favor of the story's show-business elements and expanded the role of Roxie's rival murderess Velma Kelly into a major part. The show opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre. The producers were Robert Fryer and James Cresson, in association with Martin Richards, Joseph Harris, and Ira Bernstein. It was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and played for 898, through August 27, 1977. But that wasn't the end. In 1977, the show began touring in the U.S., and production companies were mounted in Germany and Great Britain. There was also a 1981 Australian production that played for several seasons.
June 1, 1997. The show made a grand sweep of the Tony Awards, with a total of 6 awards: BEST REVIVAL/MUSICAL; ACTOR/MUSICAL, James Naughtonl ACTRESS/MUSICAL, Bebe Neuwirth; DIRECTOR/MUSICAL,Walter Bobbie; LIGHTING DESIGN, Ken Billington; CHOREOGRAPHY, Ann Reinking. And that's just for the Tonys. Mr. Cellophane himself, Joel Grey, was named Best Featured Actor by the Drama Desk. For more Chicago awards check out our Awards List Feature.
The cast list for 1975
Velma Kelly/Chita Rivera, Amos Hart/Barney Martin, Billy Flynn/Jerry Orbach, Hunyak/Graciela Daniele, Martin/Michael Vita, Roxie Hart/Gwen Verdon,Mrs. Morton/Mary McCarty, Mary Sunshine/O'Haughey, Fred Casely/Christopher Chadman, Mona/Pamela Sousa

As with any show, there are always some cast changes as a show settles in for a long run. During the Broadway run, Liza Minelli temporarily stepped in when Gwen Verdon had to leave the show for health reason. --the replacement was one of the most poorly kept secrets on Broadway. Later, when Verdon and Rivera left the show, Ann Reinking and Lenora Nemetz took their parts. Reinking in turn became the first member to announce her departure from the current production

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