Perhaps you remember the wonderful scene in the 1979 Bob Fosse film All That Jazz in which Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi-playing the Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon’s girlfriend and teenage daughter, respectively-perform a little living-room jazz-dance number for Roy Scheider, who plays Gideon. The performance is a lovely, homey respite from Gideon’s hectic speed-and-booze-fueled preparation for a Lenny-like biopic and a Chicago-like Broadway show. The sequence has all the improvisatory, bubbly joy that Gideon’s commercial, professional showbiz life is sadly sucking out of him.
I thought of that scene often while considering the superb touring production of Chicago, now at the National Theatre, because it combines, in a vintage Fosse way, the show’s snappy, sexy precision with the fun spontaneity of a performing tribe enjoying its raw, combined talents.
Fosse, John Kander, and Fred Ebb’s immensely clever musical celebrates the maximal impact of relatively minimal stagecraft. John Lee Beatty’s sleek set is essentially a tilted gold-fringed black-box bandstand inside a gold-framed black stage, with a performance space in front and some chairs on the side. Add some steps, a doorway, a hydraulic lift, a couple swinging ladders on the side, and Ken Billington’s vivid, varied lighting. That’s it. Simple plans, consummately executed. And in Chicago‘s famous costuming, by William Ivey Long, black is the new black, and thongs are the new pants. Whether the character is ostensibly inmate, juror, reporter, or court bailiff, those outfits never change much, or when they do it’s in that living-room show, dress-up kind of way-an added jacket here, some sparkly shoes, a wig, some goofy glasses.
The idea is to clear the clutter and let the performers-their acting, their bodies, their voices, their music-be the clear focus of our attention, and often each other’s. And in this age of prepackaged entertainment product being shipped from stage to movie to video game, it’s especially refreshing, because it reminds us of a power that can only emanate from on stage, the kind as fresh as a child’s irrepressible urge to “put on a show” in her living room.
The musical’s book, too, is deceptively minimal, but, again, with maximum impact. It’s essentially a revved up, modernized vaudeville review equating justice with showbiz, but using song and dance numbers, almost exclusively, to delineate the drama and the powerful comparison. The story, drawn from newspaper reportage on 1920s Windy City crime celebs, is about a chorine turned murderess, Roxie Hart (Charlotte d’Amboise), her homicidal vaudeville-circuit cellmate, Velma Kelly (Terra C. MacLeod), and how their charismatically slippery lawyer, Billy Flynn (John O’Hurley), stage-manages the court system and the press. Oiling the wheels of justice and media is the crafty and lascivious prison matron “Mama” Morton (Carol Woods), and flattened by the proceedings is Roxie’s hapless hubby Amos (Kevin Chamberlin).
In this production – which (if you can follow this) director Scott Faris has recreated from Walter Bobbie’s revival of Fosse’s original – d’Amboise is a marvel, fresh, subtle, seductive, and wonderfully weird even in her 2,000th-plus performance in this role. Particularly in the endurance riffing of the long “Roxie” number, she displays nuanced dancing prowess, and plays up, in her quirky cabaretish way, Hart’s emotional vulnerability and instability. D’Amboise’s vocal delivery ranges from wanton whisper to harried howl, drawing us in, then spinning us away in her emotive turbulence. The result is funny, erotic, sad, and more than a little disquieting.
As Velma, MacLeod is a splendidly cynical sharp-tongued songstress and a taut viper of a physical presence, at once menacing and hilarious. She shines particularly in the famed opener, “All That Jazz,” and in the side-splittingly classless homage to “Class” that she shares with Woods in the second act. I actually preferred Woods in that duet to her first-act rendition of the well-known “When You’re Good to Mama,” which was powerful (Woods has a hurricane of a voice) but vocally, I found, a little out of control.
O’Hurley, of Seinfeld and Dancing with the Stars fame, makes for an appealingly oily Flynn, whose loyalties shift as seamlessly as his legal arguments. With his resonant TV-host speaking vibe and candied, slightly corny, song style, he’s really perfect for the part. Who better to at once embody, and ironically cut, the slick but solid salesmanship of successful lawyering?
Chamberlin, a character-acting staple on stage as well as big and small screen, gives endearing heart to the dim, mopey nebbish, Amos. I loved the resigned existentialism, as well as the white-gloved inflatable-lawn-creature moves, of his “Mister Cellophane.” Another fun highlight is the freakishly talented D. Micciche as the glass-half-full tempered reporter Mary Sunshine-and by freakishly, I mean prodigiously, but also, well, freakishly.
The superb chorus danced Reinking’s Fosse-inspired choreography-restored here by Gary Chryst-fabulously, combining detailed pelvic shifts, wrist turns, finger splays, shoulder shrugs, and quick, concise foot work with bold turns, leaps, and partner work for a ravishing overall effect.
Maestro (and occasional vaudeville straight man) Don York and his orchestra were also exceptional. The sound of these hard-working dozen musicians was both polished and dazzling, from the discreet double-bass-driven background riffs in “Roxie” to the brassy big-band “Entr-acte” sizzler.
With “Razzle Dazzle” that legitimates its stage smarts even as it pokes fun at them, this Chicago is a killer.
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Walter Bobbie and Choreographed by Ann Reinking
(Recreation Directed by Scott Faris and Choreographed by Gary Chryst)
Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka
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