Sleek, chic, sexy and sensationally entertaining, the revival of “Chicago” that has taken Broadway by storm is now storming the country, and its arrival in Los Angeles feels oddly like a homecoming. “In this town, murder is a form of entertainment,” cracks one of the show’s hard-bitten characters, speaking of the Windy City of the 1920s, but it’s an equally apt description of post-O.J., post-Menendez-brothers L.A. The rare musical that wears its heartlessness on its sleeve, “Chicago” is now revealed, some 20 years after its debut was overshadowed by “A Chorus Line,” to be a black diamond of a show, hard-edged and glittering, and strangely ageless.
With its cool dissection of the way in which the media and its manipulators can transmute infamy into celebrity, the 1975 musical does in fact feel like it was born yesterday, although its two anti-heroines are anything but. Ripped from real headlines of the period (by way of a play by one Maureen Dallas Watkins), the book by lyricist Fred Ebb and original director and choreographer Bob Fosse follows the exploits of Velma Kelly (Jasmine Guy) and Roxie Hart (Charlotte d’Amboise), a pair of desperate dames trying to turn violent acts in their past into vaudeville ones of their future.
In the slammer, where she has been thrown after a run-in with her boyfriend ended in his murder, Roxie vies with Velma, herself an alleged murderess awaiting trial, for the favor of jail matron Mama Morton (Avery Sommers), who doles out access to superstar lawyer Billy Flynn (Brent Barrett). It’s not just acquittal but also media access they’re fighting for, and the way in which the former is shown to depend on the latter, though it’s now a commonplace of our culture, still has a capacity to amuse and to chill.
But the tart book, rich as it is in cool cynicism while never losing the tongue-in-cheek humor that softens its edges, is really just the show’s scaffolding (the original subtitle was “A Musical Vaudeville”): The hard heart of “Chicago” is in its brassy musical numbers, and the John Kander-Fred Ebb score is perhaps their finest work. From the bravura opening number, “All That Jazz,” to its wordless finale, the score is virtually without a weak tune, and director Walter Bobbie’s spare production, adapted from the concert version that spawned the revival, is a perfect showcase for it.
The cast of this touring company certainly give their all, although occasionally it’s not quite enough, and sometimes it’s a little too much. Guy’s Velma has plenty of steel, both vocally and physically, but she doesn’t bring a whole lot of personality — Noo Yawk accent notwithstanding — to the role. On Broadway, Bebe Neuwirth’s mixture of the predatory and the pathetic made Velma a memorable creation, and her comic instincts gave the character some real humanity. Guy’s performance, while more than adequate on all counts, doesn’t wow us.
D’Amboise, by contrast, wows us a little too much in the early going, as she uses breathy vocal mannerisms to wring laughs from every possible phrase. But her character grows smoother as the show progresses, and her limber physical style — she’s like a rag doll with a dizzy, dirty mind — is put to spectacular use in “Roxie.” Ann Reinking’s choreography, in the style of her mentor Fosse, shines throughout, but it’s at its best in this number, and d’Amboise makes an authentic show-stopper of Roxie’s paean to her future fame.
Sommers’ Mama Morton is vocally robust and M.E. Spencer does a rich sendup of an opera diva as the sob sister columnist Mary Sunshine, but the show’s real revelation is Barrett, whose matinee idol looks and matching tenor voice are ideally suited to Billy. Barrett’s Billy is slickness personified: His hair is shiny, his teeth are shiny and his eyes are shiniest of all, particularly when he’s singing “Razzle Dazzle,” a deliciously funny song of lawyerly sleight-of-hand that might easily be redubbed “Love Theme From the O.J. Simpson Trial.”
Overall, the tenor of this production is pitched a tad too high. While “Chicago” is not subtle, it can be sly, and this staging turns its winking, sardonic humor into a rather more broad kind. Lines that were delivered with dead-pan charm on Broadway are often slammed to the rafters here, and the show’s vulgarity also seems more pronounced — even the chorus boys’ tights seem tighter.
But this “Chicago” still delivers plenty of razzle dazzle, and if that’s enough to get a girl off a murder charge, it should be more than enough for audiences.