Had I not seen Chicago’s run at the National Theatre eight years ago, maybe I’d consider the current production at the Kennedy Center great instead of good. But I did, so I don’t.
The chorus might be slightly less hard-bodied, sharp, and edgy than in the earlier version in rendering Ann Reinking’s Bob Fosse-inspired choreography, but it’s still plenty slinky and sexy. No — the real difference is in the casting of the principals. Whereas the 2009 production featured Charlotte d’Amboise as the 1920s murderess Roxie, this month’s stars Brandy Norwood. Not to put too fine a point on it: D’Amboise is a triple threat, Norwood is not quite a double one.
As gazillions of radio fans already know, the R&B star has a gorgeous pitch-pinpointing contralto with a wide range, and she shows beautiful finesse in styling it around a phrase. Her dancing suffices, but doesn’t wow. It’s her acting, however, that most holds her back in the role.
D’Amboise’s physicality helps define her character. The number that really brought the differences home to me was “Roxie.” In d’Amboise’s rendition, if memory serves, she starts seated, her back facing us, and that back, pulsating to the tune’s extended signature double-bass line, has more expression than most people’s faces. The rest of the song unspools in a spidery, slightly psychopathic way, with vocal dynamics from .5 to 10 and a borderline-personality-disorder unpredictability that makes us believe, between the chuckles, that this woman could seduce and kill with equal aplomb.
Norwood, on the other hand, meanders around the stage, playing broadly to the audience or mugging cute, letting her vocal prowess do the impressing — as if it were a concert. There’s no coil to her presence, no twisted psyche, just a woman on a misadventure that we don’t really believe in. She’s playing a part, and we aren’t appropriately scared of — or at least apprehensive about — her, the way we need to be for the show’s slam to counter its glam. Her intro to “Nowadays,” toward the finale, shows a more balladic side to her, and suddenly she sinks better into the character, and I wondered if this were a matter of right woman, wrong show. I could have contentedly listened to that melancholy, wistful presence preside over a more bittersweet drama in which cute had no sway.
Friday’s performance featured Lauren Gemelli, substituting for Terra C. MacLeod as Velma, Roxie’s viperish homicidal rival and prison mate. (MacLeod also played Velma in the 2009 production at National, and was wonderful.) While Roxie’s a chorus girl, Velma’s in Vaudeville and underlines Chicago’s dark central metaphor of celebrity crime proceedings as staged spectacle.
An understudy thrown into the spotlight deserves, by definition, a medal, and Gemelli shone vocally, particularly in the opening “All That Jazz.” Her voice is a steel-strong precision instrument. Her dance-intensive numbers, though — “I Can’t Do It Alone” and “When Velma Takes the Stand” — were a mite shaky. But in parallel with Norwood’s performance, the main problem was the acting. Unlike MacLeod or, say, Catherine Zeta Jones in the 2002 film, there’s no cut to Gemelli’s cutthroat. As with Norwood, she doesn’t intimidate us, and we don’t believe she intimidates anyone on stage either, and that unbalances the sick and sassy teeter-totter of Fred Ebb and Fosse’s book, and the spectacularly cynical songs with lyrics by Ebb and music by John Kander.
Roz Ryan as Matron “Mama” Morton, the prison’s lecherous bribe-seeking den mother, is also spotty. She’s got a confidence and style that can fill the opera house, and that’s saying something, but her vocals — especially in the hilarious song “Class,” her duet with Velma — are tight and flat on the high notes.
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closes April 16, 2017
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Paul Vogt, as Roxie’s duped husband Amos, is pretty solid, even if I longed for a little more existential mist to the nebbishness of “Mister Cellophane.” Again I’m haunted, it seems, by the ghost of the 2009 version with the more spookily translucent Kevin Chamberlin in this role.
I am sorry to be a compare-and-contrast wet blanket, truly, and am relieved to report that Brent Barrett is an outstanding Billy Flynn, the slick, high-priced lawyer who spins Roxie’s and Velma’s defenses into a “razzle dazzle” circus. The second act’s courtroom scene is particularly well paced and uproarious, as is his first-act ventriloquist routine with Roxie, “We Both Reached for the Gun.” Barrett has a butterscotch tenor and he’s soap-star handsome (literally — he was in All My Children in the 80s). His insincerity is high-proof enough that when he comes on stage, audience members check to make sure they still have their wallets.
Conductor Rob Bowman’s orchestra is capital, handling hot jazz and soft-shoe attitude with equal luster. I also enjoyed concertmaster Ko Sugiyama’s saturated-schmaltz accompaniment to C. Newcomer’s buoyantly over-the-top Mary Sunshine, the sappy reporter who assures us, in her eerie soprano, that “there’s a little bit of good in everyone.”
There’s a lot of good in everyone in this production too. But Chicago’s storied past, its lean sturdiness, its sleek visual branding from the ’96 revival, its signature sultriness, and the legion of stars who have teamed in its two central roles have raised the bar mighty high. Norwood and Company don’t quite clear it, but they offer an enjoyable evening all the same.
Chicago. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Original production directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Choreographer for 1996 production, Ann Reinking. Re-creation of Reinking’s choreography, David Bushman. Director of 1996 production, Walter Bobbie. Re-creation directed by David Hyslop. Starring Brandy Norwood, Terra C. MacLeod, Brent Barrett, Paul Vogt, Roz Ryan, C. Newcomer, Shamicka Benn, Nicole Benoit, Christophe Caballero, Lauren Gemelli, Daniel Gutierrez, Brent Heuser, Anthony LaGuardia, Tanner Lane, Jennifer Mathie, Pilar Millhollen, Drew Nellessen, Laura Oldham, Evelyn Christina Tonn, Colt Adam Weiss, Matthew Winnegge, and Corey Wright.Supervising music director, Rob Fisher. Music director, Rob Bowman. Scenic design, John Lee Beatty. Costume design, William Ivey Long. Lighting design, Ken Billington. Sound design, Scott Lehrer. Orchestrations, Ralph Burns. Dance music arrangements, Peter Howard. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.