Any gripes about the producers of “Chicago” charging full-scale prices for a stripped-down show evaporate like vapors from bathtub gin the second Bebe Neuwirth & Co. open the show with a pulse-quickening rendition of “All That Jazz.” This concert staging, wonderfully choreographed by Ann Reinking (with a credit to “the style of Bob Fosse”), is a bit more elaborate than when presented by City Center’s Encores series in the spring, but even if it weren’t, the performances, wit and sophistication of the show would more than earn a place on Broadway.
As much tribute as revival, the spirit of Fosse’s genius never leaves the stage, and “Chicago,” under Walter Bobbie’s sharp direction, will dazzle newcomers to the trademark Fosse dance style and provide a thrilling reminder to those who’ve seen it before just how smart, sexy and exciting this brand of choreography was, or rather, is. The swiveling wrists, slinky shoulder rolls, slow-motion tableaux and angular poses that recall not only the original “Chicago” but also “Cabaret,” “Sweet Charity” and other Fosse productions infuse this staging with the enthusiasm of a heartfelt homage.
A homage, needless to say, that in lesser hands could be a cliche-riddled museum piece. But Fosse favorite Reinking (who sounds more and more like another Fosse perennial, his one-time wife Gwen Verdon) leads a cast that gives the show a vitality other recent Broadway revivals or originals, for that matter can only envy, full-scale or not.
With a 13-piece jazz orchestra onstage, bleacher-style, throughout the show, the cast performs its lines — performs, not reads — downstage sans props or period attire. William Ivey Long’s costumes, mostly variations of black formal wear, mini-dresses or both, vaguely suggest a 1920s gangland flavor while offering abundant opportunity for the women to display their leggy assets, yet another Fosse trademark.
And if nothing else, the concert staging would be well worthwhile simply for the terrific, overlooked score by John Kander and Fred Ebb. From the sizzling “All That Jazz” to the expertly staged and performed “Cell Block Tango” in which Neuwirth leads the femme chorus through a darkly hilarious recitation of excuses for murder the song roster gives every performer (including the top-notch chorus of singer-dancers) more than one shot at the spotlight.
The musical, considered too dark when it failed in 1975, today seems right in keeping with hard-learned cynicism about the American justice system. Jokes about manipulating jurors with “razzle-dazzle” could have been written minutes ago.
“Chicago” is set in the title city during the late 1920s. Roxie Hart (Reinking), a Jazz Age tootsie married to a man so inconsequential he sings an ode to himself called “Mr. Cellophane” (Joel Grey’s moment to shine), shoots and kills her gangster lover and is sent to a women’s prison to await trial. There she meets the mercenary, though all too attentive, warden “Mama” Morton (wickedly played by Marcia Lewis, who has great fun with the licentious “When You’re Good to Mama” number). Populating the pen is a sultry chorus of tough-as-nails jailbirds, headed by the conniving Velma Kelly (Neuwirth), who dreams of transforming her criminal celebrity into a showbiz career (did someone say 1975?).
But Velma’s star is overshadowed by Roxie, the new murderess of the moment. Both women have hired hot-shot lawyer Billy Flynn (James Naughton) to plead their cases, and Flynn takes a special interest (financially motivated) in revamping the public image of Roxie from moll to doll.
The musical certainly pulls no punches in its dim view of justice, honesty or any other American ideal the happy ending here is a finale in which the killers triumph on the vaudeville stage yet the cynicism is presented with such panache not to mention out-and-out good humor that it’s hard to imagine any audience being put off. Neuwirth’s high kicks alone should win over the hold-outs.
Reinking, acting in a broad style that seems right out of a vaudeville sketch, overcomes any doubts about the approach as she hits just the right balance between cold-hearted dame and scared gal-done-wrong. Singing in lower registers, Reinking might not have Neuwirth’s powerhouse chops, but her warm phrasing and way with a lyric more than compensate. Neuwirth, sporting a short jet-black bob, her toned, stiletto-thin body perfect for the angular contortions of the choreography, couldn’t be better as the bitter con with stars in her eyes.
Grey, although “Mr. Cellophane” is his only big number, contributes much goodwill to the proceedings, and Naughton exemplifies the musical’s debonair (if wry) tone. Taking the stage during a mock Ziegfeld-style number, Naughton’s heartless lawyer croons that all he cares about is love of money. The chorus girls, wielding large feather fans which they use in the most unladylike ways, complete the Follies parody.
If the Kander & Ebb style can be described in one word, it’s showstopper. And though their detractors might argue that the tenacity can be wearying, they’ll find scant support for that position in “Chicago.” Even in a concert staging, the momentum starts high and gets higher. There are one or two ballads, but even they seem big (although not, blessedly, in the faux-operatic style that passes for poignancy in so many of today’s musicals).
Finally, watching “Chicago,” one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the rare synthesis of talent past and present Kander & Ebb, Bobbie, Reinking, the other actors and, never least, Fosse himself that conspired to create theater art. If that’s not full-scale, what is?