The set-up: Inky black and slick as an oil spill, Chicago needs to be put to bed for a while.
I don't mean the original 1975 "musical vaudeville" by John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics and book) and Bob Fosse (book, direction, and choreography), but this current version on tour through Gexa Energy Broadway that is based on the 1996 City Center Encores! revival, with Ann Reinking's churning choreography "in the style of Bob Fosse." If I see another pair of jazz hands or a pelvic thrust or slo-mo writhing, I'm gonna, like anti-heroine Roxie Hart sings in self defense, "reach for my gun..."
The execution: Although set in the jazz age '20s, using musical numbers that pay tribute to vaunted Broadway stars of that era - a Helen Morgan torch song ("Funny Honey"), an Eddie Cantor "up" number ("Me and My Baby"), a sweet Marilyn Miller ballad ("A Little Bit of Good"), a double-entendre Sophie Tucker blues ("When You're Good to Mama"), a Ziegfeld Follies "bring on the girls" anthem ("All I Care About") - this concept musical, one of the first of that genre, is so awash with built-in irony and cynicism that it doesn't need any more layers of deconstruction and alienation. Giving it an attitude and look of a seedy gay S&M bar seems to completely miss the original intent of the authors.
Anyway, what dates faster than someone's idea of hot sex from two decades ago? Buff chorus boys in leather and see-through mesh tops grinding next to scantily-clad, buxom chorines doesn't have the wow factor it once had. Maybe it's that obsessive Reinking overlay of every patented Fosse movement that wears one out, but this production lacks any genuine sexy move. It's all fake. They're only going through the motions. Talk about your "razzle dazzle." They don't even bother.
Only Terra C. MacLeod, as low-rent murderess Velma, shows any sense of where she is. She's the only one on stage with fire and purpose. Look how she holds her head just so when tossing off a wise crack, watch how she phrases her lithe body when draped backward over a chair during her show-stopping "When Velma Takes the Stand," see how she snaps those ubiquitous jazz hands. (You see them hundreds of times, believe me, everybody does jazz hands, yet when MacLeod shoots out her hands, they look a bit different each time. Now that's a pro.) She also has Dietrich cheekbones and shapely gams. She's a knockout Velma.
Todd Buonopane, as cuckolded Amos, Roxie's schlubby husband, matches MacLeod's theatrical savvy and makes a complete meal out of his supporting role. As sleazy, conceited attorney Billy Flynn, who knows every trick in the book to manipulate a jury, Brent Barrett phones in his performance. It's a one-note role anyway, so who can blame him? Not even beloved Jerry Orbach, the original Flynn, could do anything with this part besides gluing on a little wisp of a mustache. Barrett's got oily down to a T, he's only missing the mustache.
As for Roxie, the musical's main character, Paige Davis, television host of "Trading Spaces," is no stranger to Broadway, but seems a little off, not quite there either. We have very little sympathy for Roxie, a cold-blooded killer, liar, publicity whore, and dumb as a stump. It's the fault of the musical that we never warm to her, for she's one icy black widow spider. In Davis's kewpie-doll take, the actress seems to want us to like her, no matter how immoral Roxie behaves. A good dancer and singer, Davis keeps peeking out, as if to remind us that she's only acting and not really like Roxie at all.
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The energetic chorus certainly looks great, and performs more aerobic exercise than a month at the gym, but Reinking's reconstructed homage is all pose, no substance. It's meant to be hot and sizzling, but there's so much of it, and so much looks the same, the heat quickly dissipates. The empty gyrations suit Wiemar Germany Cabaret, not prohibition Chicago.
Kander and Ebb's atmospheric, ironic pastiche numbers keep this musical in the history books. The hot jazz band orchestrations by veteran Ralph Burns augment the period, and even if you've never heard of Sophie Tucker or Eddie Cantor, you'll recognize the flavorsome antique styling. Leading an exceptionally cool orchestra, maestro Jack Gaughan keeps the heat on boil.
The verdict: Chicago is a bleak, misanthropic affair, rubbing our noses in the instant fame of nonentities. Hacks becoming famous through a relentless media machine is not only a product of our times - Kim Kardashian, Miley Cryus, are you listening? - but, as Fosse slaps us aware, it's been around a long time. It's pop culture with a vengeance. Kander and Ebb give it a haunting song, Fosse paints it hellish black.
This icon of Broadway musicals, creepy and dark, presented through Gexa Energy Broadway, runs only through Sunday, November 17, at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at thehobbycenter.org or call 800-982-2787. $30-$141.85