The cynical soul of Kander and Ebb’s diamond-hard musical classic is its obscene eagerness to expose human greed and ravenous hunger for the spotlight. In the touring version of “Chicago,” the show’s biggest star, Patrick Swayze, is too laid-back and tentative, and some of the other performers shy from the slimier aspects of their roles. Fortunately, Reva Rice as Velma Kelly (the role that won Catherine Zeta-Jones her supporting actress Oscar) attacks her part with juicy, sensual abandon, welcoming us into the world of merry murderesses who feel virtuously entitled to knock off unfaithful lovers.
From the minute Rice rips into “All That Jazz” in a low, tantalizing voice, she creates an ideal environment for Roxie Hart (Bianca Marroquin) to gun down rat-fink boyfriend Fred (Kevin Neil McCready) after he discards her. When Roxie fails to make her nebbishy husband Amos (Ray Bokhour) take the blame, she lands in prison and begins her competition with Velma for vindication and celebrity.
As Roxie, the redheaded Marroquin strongly resembles a Bob Fosse favorite, Shirley MacLaine, and she executes the Fosse moves (reworked by Ann Reinking and current choreographer Gary Chryst) with enticing skill. Pitted against Rice, Marroquin is initially too vulnerable, more kitten than killer until the second act, when she unleashes naked egotism and mistakenly overestimates her own power.
“When You’re Good To Mama,” the showstopping song by prison matron Mama Morton (Carol Woods) remains a high point. Woods possesses comic flair and a powerful voice, and belts out Mama’s signature tune in crowd-pleasing style. Only drawback is a lovable quality which waters down the manipulative, sexually calculating side of her nature.
Swayze is competent but colorless as Billy Flynn, the lawyer who plots Roxie’s defense and specializes in misleading the press with soap-opera theatrics. The charisma Swayze has on screen is missing here, and he underplays as though acting for a camera. We don’t see enough of Flynn’s narcissistic pride in his treachery, nor we do see the blinding charm that seduces women and juries. Swayze performs smoothly on “All I Care About” and dances a few steps that make the spectator long for more.
That need for dance is supplied by a first rate ensemble, as men in see-through mesh shirts and women in seductively skimpy costumes roll their shoulders and hips, bump, grind and kick their way vibrantly through steamy serpentine moves.
One of the production’s best numbers is a quiet one featuring Ray Bokhour as Roxie’s dull husband. Drearily dressed, bald, overweight, Bokhour perfectly projects the sadness of a loser doomed to be ignored by everyone in the witty “Mister Cellophane.”
Under Walter Bobbie’s direction, “The Cell Block Tango” is joltingly electric. We watch six self-justifying killers explain with relish why they killed their significant others, spouting such ideas as “some guys can’t hold their arsenic,” or pointing out happily, “he ran into my knife — 10 times!” Two duets with Rice and Kelly, “My Own Best Friend” and “Nowadays,” are packed with theatrical excitement.
All the songs come across with rare and remarkable clarity, thanks to Scott Lehrer’s expert sound design. Show’s orchestra, under Vincent Fanuele’s energetic leadership, has great fun with the score, and during the entr’acte includes the zany sight of pianist Thomas Gallaher playing with hands behind his back or kicking the keyboard vigorously with his feet.