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Windy City Wonder

Smart and relevant Chicago is a venerable charmer

The much ballyhooed, award-winning revival of Chicago has finally come to Houston in all its glitzy, gorgeous, black-lace and bare-skin glory. Lowdown lawyering (is there any other kind?), cheap, tawdry women, and our oozy adoration of fame and fortune are at the utterly black heart of this very funny show.

Though set in Chicago of the late 1920s, it's a tale that we of the thoroughly jaded '90s -- the decade of Jerry Springer, Monica Lewinsky and scores of murderous kids -- can appreciate, even adore. Just look at the six Tonys this revival has won. Back in the innocent '70s, when Chicago first opened, the show couldn't hold a candle to kinder, gentler Chorus Line.

Nowadays, though, the houses are packed and audiences are loving the action. It starts when Roxie Hart (Belle Calaway), an over-the-hill chorus dancer, shoots her lover. First, she sweet-talks her lunkhead husband, Amos (Michael Tucci), into taking the rap. When he wises up, Roxie hires lawyer Billy Flynn (Alan Thicke), who spin-doctors her calamity into the sort of publicity stunt any starstruck vaudevillian performer would love. Awaiting her trial in jail, Roxie meets fellow starstruck murderess Velma Kelly (Stephanie Pope). It isn't long before the two of them (thanks to the Machiavellian machinations of Flynn) are on their way to freedom, fame and fortune, all for the measly price of a couple of ordinary homicides.

Of course the story is only part of this show; in fact, the real engine is the dancing. Bob Fosse, known for provocative choreography that includes pelvic thrusts, snapping fingers and his signature "clump" of dancers who slink across the stage in one gorgeous, slithering mass, choreographed the original Chicago. This new version has been choreographed by Ann Reinking "in the style of Bob Fosse," according to a program note. And who better to copy the master than Reinking, his favorite protegee both on stage and off? With the first cat-slow strut across the stage, it's obvious this show is going to be full of shivery dancing the likes of which we won't often see again.

But without a chorus as wondrously strong and lusty as this one, the choreography would be nothing. And leads as powerful as Stephanie Pope, who turns the simple act of sitting in a straight-backed chair into the kind of come-hither move that only a monk could resist, make this a show no dance lover should miss. From her fingertips to her toes, she is all snaky sexiness. Even better, she's outrageously funny -- and can this girl sing.

Though all the leads don't necessarily "dance" (most all make some sort of gesture toward moving rhythmically), they all can sing like nobody's business. Michael Tucci's Amos delighted the audience with "Mister Cellophane," about a man who's so invisible to those around him he might as well be made of sandwich wrap. And Belle Calaway's Roxie Hart has a voice that can move from tender high notes to all-out sassy brass. Good-looking and slug-slimy Thicke's Billy Flynn is charming, though not as polished as his more seasoned cast mates.

Director Walter Bobbie has made the unusual choice of putting the orchestra at center stage (the exciting and mostly brass ensemble is conducted by Vincent Fanuele). And the action, which takes place on a narrow strip of stage in front of the band, is announced as a series of vaudeville-like acts. Thus the audience -- an important ingredient to the theme about the devastating effects of fast fame on a culture -- becomes in part culpable for Roxie's murderous success.

It's a fascinating and provocative conceit in a show that has come around, some 20 years after its inception, to find its time and place to speak volumes about the world in which we live.

Chicago plays through August 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m.; Sunday 7 p.m. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 693-2692, (800) 889-8457. $43.50 to $49.50.

 
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