“Chicago” at the Pantages reminds us of the great talent we lost on Sept. 12, when lyricist Fred Ebb died. Ebb’s killingly clever words, which also cut like a knife in “Cabaret,” are rendered by savvy stars who understand and convey the pleasures of murder as a route to celebrity.
Guest star Patti LaBelle is a welcome addition to the cast, but she remains herself rather than the character. LaBelle’s soulful style rocks, her licks have drive and she can nail hellraising notes. Although these factors make her entertaining to watch, she isn’t Matron “Mama” Morton. As conceived by librettists Ebb and Bob Fosse, this “Countess of the Clink” is meant to be more than manipulative: She’s lascivious, vaguely evil and sexually suggestive, qualities lacking in LaBelle’s interpretation.
Wayne Brady, scheduled as LaBelle’s co-star, had to bow out due to throat problems. Happily, there’s a show-stealing turn from his last-minute replacement Gregory Harrison, who imbues the role with teasing charisma and sounds like an authentic 1920s radio idol on John Kander’s mordantly melodic tunes. His version of “Razzle Dazzle” makes a strong case that the world is just show business, a circus shaped by distorting facts and feelings, and his slick, huckster approach gives love a convincingly bad name on “All I Care About.”
“All That Jazz” introduces Velma Kelly (Brenda Braxton), and her defiant manner, undulating movements and smoky voice are ideal equipment for a murderess craving stardom. Some of the early sequences are decadence-lite, but Braxton’s streetwise ruthlessness is the real thing. Before long, we get stronger and more pungent whiffs of evil. After a girlishly cunning Roxie Hart (Bianca Marroquin) slaughters her philandering boyfriend, the show takes off and keeps building.
Marroquin (who portrayed Roxie in the Pantages’ January 2004 “Chicago”) supplies silky sweetness in striking contrast to Braxton’s world-weary attitude. She nimbly negotiates the opportunistic mood shifts — from devoted to disgusted wife, grateful to greedy client — and her “Me and My Baby” gets the heart pumping. Marroquin, a dynamic dancer, is accompanied by Eddie Bennett and Steven Sofia, two boneless, high-kicking, hand-waving examples of agile athleticism. Ann Reinking’s choreography, re-created by Gary Chryst for this production, brings out their best qualities.
Director Walter Bobbie stays true to the unsentimental core of the piece, notably in “Cell Block Tango,” in which Velma and a group of unrepentant murderesses joyously justify their crimes. Bobbie also draws considerable mileage from the high voltage, “When Velma Takes the Stand,” and displays LaBelle and Braxton to advantage on the derisive duet, “Class.”
R. Bean is a wild caricature as saccharine sob sister Mary Sunshine, and P.J. Benjamin, portraying Roxie’s bland husband Amos, creates a pathetic loser on “Mr. Cellophane,” even if he doesn’t have the hangdog charm John C. Reilly brought to the Oscar-winning film.
Musical director Vincent Fanuele’s band does justice to Ralph Burns’ wailing orchestrations, in which saxes, trumpets and trombones represent low-life carnality and cheap emotions, and Scott Lehrer’s excellent sound allows us to hear the classic songs without a struggle.
In the end, the consistent 30-year popularity of “Chicago” should be primarily attributed to Kander and Ebb, and the incisive Ebb/Fosse book. One clear-eyed, cynical exchange explains the show’s irreverent, enduring appeal: Roxie’s remark, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” and Velma’s wonderfully delivered dismissal: “Baby, you’re talking to the wrong people.”