Princess of Wales Theatre
In Toronto on Saturday
The 1997 Broadway revival of the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical Chicago has become an industry of its own. This is its fourth visit to town and it appears to be heading for another sellout. The 1975 original show, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse who also wrote the book, may have been underappreciated by the critics at the time, but in the current cynical climate, the musical has found a firm home.
One of the characters calls the Chicago of the 1920s the place where "murder is entertainment" and he could be describing today's Court TV. The story about two murderesses, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, who get off scot-free because of the razzle-dazzle of ace lawyer Billy Flynn, and who later form a nightclub act to capitalize on their notoriety, does not seem that far-fetched from today's celebrity-obsessed news.
Bianca Marroquin (Roxie) and Brenda Braxton (Velma) are reprising their roles from the show's 2003 visit, while former Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson is on hand as Flynn. The women nail down their alter egos as smooth as mother's milk, but Richardson, who looks appropriately slicked down and has a pleasant voice, is blancmange in stage presence, although he clearly has his screamers in the audience from his pop-chart days.
Rounding out the cast are Ron Orbach as Roxie's nebbish husband Amos and Carol Woods as the charismatic jail matron "Mama" Morton. Both are superb.
In truth, the star of the show is the ghost of Fosse. His consort and protégé Ann Reinking created the original 1997 choreography "in the style of Fosse" which has been faithfully recreated by Gary Chryst for the touring company.
The exhilarating dance numbers dominate Chicago. A little history is needed as to why this revival succeeds so well, no matter who is in the company. In 1996, Reinking teamed up with director Walter Bobbie and music director Rob Fisher to produce a staged concert version of Chicago for the City Centre ENCORES! series. This beloved New York tradition remounts shows that deserve a second coming. Shorn of scenery and costumes, the ENCORES! show became wall-to-wall choreography, and when it was transferred to Broadway, this aspect was sanctified. John Lee Beatty's set became a giant witness box to hold the 1920s jazz band, replete with dual pianos and banjo, while the costumes were reduced to William Ivey Long's variations on slinky black lingerie for the women and sheer tops and tight pants for the men.
Thus there are no lavish production numbers per se. Rather, in this minimal staging, the song numbers are announced in true vaudeville fashion, and the performers come out and sing and dance in Reinking's homage to Fosse. In fact, Roxie and Velma's Hot Honey Rag which simulates their nightclub act retains the original Fosse choreography.
Fossesque means tiptoes and hunched shoulders, arm shrugs and snake wrists, pelvic thrusts and torso twirls. The Fosse look is unmistakable and inherently erotic. The body distorts in muscle isolations, every finger seems to be alive doing its own thing, while the limbs take on a life of their own, particularly the cunning port de bras.
The choreography also makes anyone look good who can manage the Fossesque simultaneous backward thrusts of the upper torso and forward thrusts of the lower. This particular Chicago company contains some fairly beefy men and women who are not your usual chorus line of slender cuties. There are swelling breasts and thighs and behinds that defy usual Broadway aesthetics, but everyone can dance in thrilling manner.
Mirroring the original Roxie and Velma of Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera respectively for whom Chicago was a Broadway comeback of sorts, Marroquin and Braxton are women of a certain age, but in their maturity, they can still cut the mustard of high kicks and supple body flexes. Marroquin is all fatuous girlish innocence while Braxton is a hard-as-nails shaft of steel.
The former drips sweetness, the latter sarcasm.
As for Richardson, he is a big disappointment. In a plum role that demands ooze and oomph, he is throw-away charmless. He might cut a fine figure of a man, but his time on stage is paint-by-numbers.
Chicago continues at the Princess
of Wales Theatre until Dec. 3.