Chicago: Fosse's Follies

See pics from Chicago's sultry opening night in our slideshow.

The set-up: Unhappily married, dim bulb Roxie Hart (Tracy Shayne) becomes an instant "star" when she shoots her lover and the murder trial is transformed into a media circus by slick shyster lawyer Billy Flynn (John O'Hurley). This, of course, pushes yesterday's murderess Velma Kelly (Terra MacLeod) off the front pages. How's a flapper to compete with that?

The execution: This touring production of the Tony-winning revival of Kander & Ebb's and Bob Fosse's 1975 "musical vaudeville," presented by Society for the Performing Arts in a limited run, is so swathed in topical cynicism and irony that you might mistake the show for a lengthy sketch from Jon Stewart. Nor would we be surprised if Representative Weiner, Bill Clinton or O.J. Simpson made an appearance. Notorious celebrity and instant fame have been mainstays of tabloid culture even before Maurine Watkins' original 1926 play, but Broadway wizard Fosse turned up the heat on the "everyone's a star" with blinding theatrical glare and a misanthropic view of humanity not glimpsed since Scrooge. The bleak "razzle dazzle" is one of its guilty pleasures, as are the Kander and Ebb pastiche showbiz tunes, like "All the Jazz," "Cell Block Tango" and, naturally, "Razzle Dazzle," that could have come straight from an antique Ziegfeld extravaganza. As in Sondheim's earlier Follies, you can tick off the old styles: An Eddie Cantor up number, a raunchy Sophie Tucker blowout, a torch song for Helen Morgan.

The revival, re-choreographed after Fosse's original by his muse Ann Reinking, lays on the Fosse-isms so thick that by the middle of Act I everything feels (and looks) the same. How many more "jazz hands" can we take? This unvarying texture deadens the musical; it's another layer that this most distancing show can't afford. But the cast is sexed-up with leggy Amazon chorines and buffed muscle boys, so there's always something to look at. And the show moves, one of Fosse's great contributions that revival director Walter Bobbie polishes to perfection. Shayne's Roxie is cold and rather Hart-less, but MacLeod's Velma, a role she's played all over the world, is this show's wonder, alive and warm, always catching us off guard. Shayne's going through the motions, MacLeod's living them. And you couldn't cast a more ideal Billy than velvet-voiced O'Hurley, who drips sarcasm and stardust with felicity.

The verdict: If you only know this show from the over-wrought Oscar-winning movie, by all means see it live, where there's magic in the simple act of two pros sitting in chairs and singing a duet. An adult entertainment with an ice-cold core: Guilty as charged.

Through June 26. SPA at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-227-4772.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover