Chicago

Now playing at the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway.

The central conceit of the musical Chicago—the vaudeville setup, in which every character is both acting out the story and performing for a literal audience*—is so strong, so sly and sharp, that it’s all but impossible to screw up. So it’s no surprise that the Broadway revival of Fred Ebb and John Kander’s irrepressible classic is indeed unrepressed. The long-running production is like a well-oiled machine; having been around for more than fifteen years, it no longer attracts top-tier stars, but even the more modest parts keep things moving along. I mean, really, if you can’t make “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango,” and “Razzle Dazzle” fun, you have no business on a Broadway stage.

To be perfectly honest, I thought two of the three top-billed performers were a bit lacking. Bianca Marroquin has Roxie’s chirpy amorality down cold, and she’s a spunky, energetic dancer, but she sometimes finds herself overpowered when she sings, particularly in her lower register. Amra-Faye Wright, the current Velma, is a stronger singer, but she can be a limp-looking dancer (which is particularly unfortunate for her character as Velma is supposed to be the vaudeville veteran and Roxie the wannabe).

That doesn’t matter too much, though, because both are talented actors. One of Marroquin’s best moments comes toward the end, with “Nowadays,” when Roxie finds herself acquitted of murder but ignored by the public. Marroquin doesn’t even bother to sing the first few lines, instead choking them out with teary petulance. Her tone is perfect: self-pitying but not remotely sympathetic, which would have been a misstep. She maintains Roxie’s essential narcissism even at the character’s lowest point. And Wright makes for a delightfully bitchy Velma, completely self-absorbed and entirely un-self-aware, the perfect combination for “Class,” her hilarious, unknowingly vulgar duet with Mama Morton. (The fact that she gets to sit for that number—well, it doesn’t hurt.)

I have no reservations about praising Tony Yazbeck’s Billy Flynn, despite the fact that I’ve never paid much attention to Flynn’s big numbers. (That was probably a consequence of being introduced to Chicago through a much-loved Broadway revival cast recording that got played in my high school chorus room just about every lunch period for months. Girls controlled that CD player, and we tended to stick to singing and dancing along to “All That Jazz,” “When You’re Good to Mama,” and—most of all, on endless repeat—”Cell Block Tango.” I wasn’t aware that “Mister Cellophane” even existed until I first saw the movie.) Anyway (sorry, I’m feeling digressive and undisciplined), when Billy Flynn is one of the best performers on stage, it suddenly becomes obvious that “All I Care About” and “Razzle Dazzle” are damn great songs. Furthermore, Yazbeck gives Flynn more dramatic nuance than is strictly necessary but that is, nonetheless, rather interesting. His Flynn is the smartest guy in the room but doesn’t seem to place too much stock in that; he’s confident but never complacent, and when Roxie fires him, he seems genuinely angry, not because she’s offended him—he clearly doesn’t care what she thinks one way or the other—but because doing his job well (you know, in a completely immoral way) is pretty much the only thing he cares about. It’s a terrific, charismatic performance.

And all of the leads are buoyed by the rest of the company. (I suspect most of the ensemble has been around for longer for any of the stars, who tend to come and go.) The dancing, choreographed by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse, is crisp and kinetic, with plenty of attitude. I wish the soloists hit the punch lines in “Cell Block Tango” a bit harder (it’s only the funniest celebration of homicide ever written!), but I can’t argue with their spirited, take-their-prisoners delivery. Everyone plays to the balcony, from Carol Woods’s smugly vampy Mama Morton to R. Lowe’s gloriously campy Mary Sunshine to the poor nameless guys who are basically cast as eye-candy, albeit singing, dancing eye-candy. In short, everyone is always deliberately, self-consciously performing. I couldn’t ask more from Chicago.

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*I like the film adaptation of Chicago—it’s fun—but the performative aspect is lost in the translation from stage to screen. In the movie, the musical numbers are implied to be in the imagination of vaudeville-obsessed Roxie. That works well enough, but it undermines the idea that all of the characters—from the defendants to the lawyers to the prison warden to the journalists to the judge and jury—conceive of what they see and do as performance rather than sincere, guileless expression. That conscious hollowness gives Chicago much of its bite, so even the subtle move into Roxie’s head destroys some of what makes the musical so fun. I still enjoy the movie, but it’s not the same.

One Reply to “Chicago”

  1. Thanks for explaining the difference between the movie and theatrical versions. Never having seen “Chicago” in the theater I feel like I’ve missed out on a vital part of the show. Still, the movie does a good job of emphasizing the superficiality of all the characters – and the justice system itself.

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