Roxie Hart, the gorgeous killer whose wiggling hips all but set Chicago on fire, is one of musical comedy's most wonderfully wicked femmes fatales. She gets away with murder and gets fabulously famous doing so. Still, for all her floozy charms, Roxie's just one reason why this sleek little musical, now running at the Hobby Center, packs such a powerful punch. There's also John Kander's sizzling score, Fred Ebb's naughty lyrics and Ann Reinking's undulating choreography, all snaking together in this sin-city story (by Ebb and Bob Fosse), which feels as fresh today as it did in the 1970s when Chicago first opened on Broadway.
Set in the Jazz Age, when Chicago roared and burlesque was the hottest thing going in the way of entertainment, the story shows us a world full of heartless bastards who feed like vultures on juicy gossip, back-alley violence and low-down dirty behavior -- it's no wonder new-millennium audiences like Chicago so much. In fact, the 2002 film version was such a hit, it made some critics declare that the movie musical was back.
Still, there's nothing like seeing this show live, the way it was intended -- especially when the cast is as good as the one put together here by director Walter Bobbie. They work their black-hearted magic in this tight, minimalist production, conjuring up a night of exhilarating theater that's hard to come by in today's musical-comedy world full of Disneyfied music.
The songs are brassy, bitingly witty and truly unforgettable. These are the sort of showtunes that follow you out of the theater and into the night. Numbers like "Cell Block Tango" sizzle down deep in the marrow of your bones. And if you're not careful, you'll find yourself nodding along to the rhythm as the girl-prisoners tell their stories of murder and mayhem. Then there are the show-stopping solos; "When You're Good to Mama" is sung by the jail's matron, played here by Carol Woods with sexy sass and an out-of-the-ballpark voice.
But the most powerful numbers in this production come from racy Roxie herself, who's played by the lovely Michelle DeJean with such depth that she has got to be one of the most sympathetic narcissists who ever strutted her stuff across a stage. In DeJean's capable and flexible body, Roxie is more than just a two-timing vixen who'll stoop to any depths for a chance to get her name in the papers. She's also a sweet, bright-eyed kid who's looking for a break, as in "Roxie," where she imagines herself performing with a stage full of male backup dancers. Then she turns around and becomes as hungry as a wolf can be in "Me and My Baby," during which she comes up with her own wicked way out of the slammer and onto the front page, where she longs to be. That we adore both Roxie's innocence and her ruthlessness speaks volumes about DeJean's captivating stage presence, her slinky, smooth voice and, of course, her slithering moves. Did I mention the girl can dance?
DeJean also has some terrific backup. Tom Wopat, perhaps most famous for his seven seasons on TV's Dukes of Hazzard, makes a sensationally scary Billy Flynn (Roxie's greedy lawyer). There's a weighty avarice to his performance that adds some real seriousness to Roxie's plight. Flynn really doesn't care about anything but the dough he can make off his clients. And he makes it clear in "We Both Reached for the Gun," when he tells Roxie what she's to say once she gets on the stand, that he cares absolutely zilch about such nettlesome things as justice. And Wopat's voice is almost stunning for its size and smooth, easy kick.
Also fine is Brenda Braxton's Velma Kelly, the silver-shoed dancer who wants to get famous just as badly as Roxie does. She's especially good in "Class," a wry little ditty that she sings with the matron about the current state of affairs, in which low-down manners are par for the course. And Kevin Carolan is perfect as sad-sack Amos Hart, Roxie's cuckold of a husband, all but stopping the show with his low-key and highly effective "Mister Cellophane."
Put this all together with Ann Reinking's choreography (which is, as the program tells us, very much "in the style of Bob Fosse"), and you've got one deliciously oily night of naughty theater that feels brand-new, no matter how many times you may have seen the movie.
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