by Toba Singer
October 25, 2006 -- Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, California
If you’re a jazz dancer, “Chicago” is the show for you! The Anne Reinking choreography in the style of Bob Fosse, restaged brilliantly by Gary Chryst, offers dancers a chance to execute sizzling combinations in a cabaret-sized set, with the orchestra led by grand master Vincent Fanuele right onstage alongside them.
The story, set in Chicago in the ragtime era, centers on two rival murderesses, who share a cellblock with six women “in” for similar crimes. All of them killed the men in their lives for offenses having to do with love, betrayal, or the highest of crimes – inflicting relentlessly irritating habits on their partners.
They tell their stories as they alternate cleavage-shifting épaulement with pelvic floor stretches, or sitting with their bared legs splayed on ice cream chairs during the blockbusting “Cell Block Tango,” where they remind us that “he had it coming.” One lover was killed because he wouldn’t stop popping his chewing gum, another because he was discovered “in flagrante delicto” with three of his closest friends. Roxie, one of the rivals, after reenacting firing the gun, appears to blush as she excuses herself from the scene of the crime with the words, “I have to pee!”
Roxie is played by Michelle deJean, who variously gurgles, sizzles, and punches up her lines, singing with a resonant voice that can target and hit any note. Her “rival,” Velma Kelly, played by Terra C. MacLeod, gives us a more monochromatic [read: black hearted] character – an Amazon of a dancer whose stamina, spontaneity, and animal magnetism never quit.
Roxie’s cuckolded husband Amos, who sings that he is “Mister Cellophane” because he is so transparent as not to be noticed, is played by Ron Orbach. His pathos, delivered via a flat and authentic Chicago twang, render Amos one of the most poignant characters in a musical comedy to date.
Carol Wood, as Matron “Mama” Morton, (a role made famous by Queen Latifah in the film version), who brokers her “I got the hookup” talents to needy felons, comes rip-roaring onto the stage in “When You’re Good to Mama.” Her voice beguiles every note in a two-octave range. Similar skills are forthcoming from R. Bean, whose Mary Sunshine provides comic relief from the parade of Denizens of the Dark Side.
The only disappointment of the evening is Huey Lewis, who plays the slippery cad of a defense lawyer, Billy Flynn. Lewis, whose diction – when it is audible – sounds like it comes untutored from one or another bank of the Long Island Sound or under it, can’t carry a tune, dance, or act. Unfortunately, his role requires that he sing a song titled “Razzle Dazzle,” rendered a misnomer by him in no time flat.
The question “Why was he cast in this pivotal role?” is present in the loss of consciousness of every snoring audience member. This reviewer overheard the man seated next to her propose re-launching the 1960s slogan “Free Huey!” so that Lewis may be released from his contract. What Lewis’ miscasting demonstrates is that the Billy Flynn role, while entertaining when correctly cast, turns out not to be as pivotal as previously believed. In spite of Lewis, the audience seemed to love the show.
Seeing the 13 plus musicians onstage was at first a little shocking because it leaves not much space for the dancers. It turned out, however, to be a minor stroke of genius. Under the stewardship of the veteran Broadway conductor, Vincent Fanuele, who interacts with the cast at appropriate comic moments, the musicians’ proximity to the dancers lends the show a real boîte, speakeasy, or cabaret ambience, and creates an intimacy between audience members and the cast that makes the show your best friend for an evening.
The book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse is full of earnest yet trenchant one liners such as “I fired two warning shots into his heart,” from one of the murderesses. Then there is Matron Mama Morton’s defense of Billy Flynn’s $5000 fee: “If Jesus Christ had been in Chicago with $5000, it would have all turned out very differently for him.”
Unlike in every other musical in the history of humankind, you don’t see orchestra members dashing out of the theater after the curtain calls. On the contrary, the band remains seated, playing the audience out as they leave the theater humming and be-bopping onto the sidewalk. Thanks to the fabulous cast, musicians, lighting designer Ken Billington, and choreographer Gary Chryst for a power-packed restaging of this first-rate show!
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