Thursday, July 28, 2011


Chicago, at Broadway's Ambassador Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating ***1/2 out of ****

When I visit New York City I'm hesitant to use one of my theatre slots on a long-running show because there's always so much new to see. But last month I was there on a Monday night, when most shows are dark.

Since I took in Kander and Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys in the fall, I figured one of their best-known musicals, Chicago, would make a good finale to my Broadway season. While I've watched the Academy Award-winning movie, I'd never seen it onstage.

Despite the 1920s setting, the story of a woman accused of murder, the accompanying media frenzy and a sensational trial seemed very contemporary. Chicago is a stark look at how the justice system can be manipulated and our unquenchable thirst for celebrities.

When the curtain went up, the first thing I noticed were the musicians - they were seated right in the middle of the stage, not toward the back or in the orchestra pit. It was unusual but they sounded wonderful - bold and brassy, with a great horn section.

While performers from TV, movies and music have been part of a revolving cast during the revival's 15 years on Broadway, I saw it with theatre veterans and Tony nominees Charlotte D'Amboise as chorus girl Roxie Hart, accused of murdering her lover, and Christopher Sieber as high-powered defense lawyer Billy Flynn.

D'Amboise was so appealing - I couldn't take my eyes off of her - and she reminded me a bit of Shirley MacLaine. As Roxie, she's got this sweet and innocent veneer that hides something steely and calculating.

Sieber is perfect as the cynical Flynn, just as expert in the court of public opinion as he is in convincing a jury. I last saw him on his knees as the villainous Lord Farquaad in Shrek but he's quite a song-and-dance man standing on his own two feet.

I was also really impressed with Chris Sullivan, who played a Green Bay Packer in Lombardi, as Roxie's devoted husband, Amos. He was so sad and pathetic in "Mister Cellophane," my heart just went out to him.

I have to admit that Amra-Faye Wright as murderous vaudeville performer Velma Kelly didn't make quite as big an impression on me. She just didn't strike me as a strong enough rival for Roxie. Still, like everyone in the cast she's a fine singer and dancer. (The role is currently being played by Nikka Graff Lanzarone, who I really enjoyed in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.)

While Chicago doesn't have room for elaborate sets what it does have is style - reflected in an energetic score, electrifying choreography and vaudeville-influenced production numbers and lots of really sexy black-clad dancers. (The Playbill credits the choreography to Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse.)

My favorites were "We Both Reached for the Gun," Flynn's press conference where he manipulates Roxie like a ventriloquist's dummy; "All That Jazz," the opening number; "Cell Block Tango," featuring an array of women on Death Row; and Flynn's "Razzle Dazzle," in which he describes how a trial is really just show business.

In late August Chicago will become the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history, surpassing A Chorus Line. It remains tremendously entertaining and it could teach some musicals of more recent vintage a thing or two about holding an audience's attention.


Greene said...


How you would have enjoyed the original production of "Chicago" back in 1975. The show was ideally cast, crackled with satire, and bore the impeccable Fosse stamp. It was, of course, far to cynical and downbeat for audiences to fully accept in that era. The country was still recovering from the horrors of the Nixon presidency and Watergate, so shows with optimistic themes had greater resonance in those days. "Chicago" ran for well over 2 years, but was completely overshadowed by the likes of "A Chorus Line" and even "Annie."

It took real life circus trials like those of the Menendez Brothers (1993) and OJ Simpson (1995) to prepare the culture for the special message of cynicism portrayed in "Chicago." I initially thought the inclusion of "Chicago" a somewhat odd choice for Encores and I was even more surprised that a concert setting would actually be transferred to Broadway, even occupying the Richard Rodgers Theatre (the old 46th Street Theatre back in '75 and the home of the original "Chicago" run).

There is an irony that this new "Chicago" will soon outrun the original "A Chorus Line." If memory serves, "Chicago" was nominated for 10 Tonys and lost all of them to "A Chorus Line," a record only broken this past season by the shutout of "The Scottsboro Boys."

Truth be told, I've always preferred the black edge of "Chicago" and its winking mockery of the American justice system. Its wonderful success may actually be a somewhat unflattering reflection of our cultural values, but I don't care. Velma and Roxie steal my "Hart" every time. Long may they wave.

Esther said...

Wow, thanks for the comment and the background! "Chicago" has a pretty fascinating history.

And it is interesting to think how much more receptive we are to the story, how the times have caught up to it. Certainly the coverage of sensational trials has only increased post-O.J. And true-crime books are a whole genre now.

The movie obviously helped, too, by giving the musical some name recognition. If people are coming to New York and want to see "one" show and they're not regular theatergoers, it's a known quantity. Plus, I think seeing the movie only whets your appetite to see it live. The producers have obviously been very active with stunt-casting, too.

But in the end, "Chicago" sells itself no matter who's in it, because it's entertaining and exciting - a great score, great dancing, really strong, memorable characters. It's the kind of show you go home and tell your friends, neighbors and coworkers how much you enjoyed it.

And oh how I wish I had a Wayback Machine so I could see the original production! I mean, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, Gwen Verdon! Luckily, I had a chance to see Ms. Rivera on tour in "The Dancer's Life."

I have to agree with you about A Chorus Line, too. I saw an early national tour when I was college in Boston and I saw the recent revival on tour a couple of years ago. I just found it kind of plodding.