Wednesday, December 03, 2014

From the Archives: A Review of the Revival of 'Chicago' (1997)

Monday's post about Big Stone Gap, which mentioned cast member Jasmine Guy, reminded me about how, in the last years of the last century, I reviewed a musical she starred in: a national tour of  Kander and Ebb's Chicago.

Guy played Velma Kelly in the revival of the Bob Fosse musical, on tour at the National Theatre in Washington in the spring of 1997. Notably, this revival is still playing on Broadway -- a continuous run dating to November 14, 1996, adding up to 7,494 performances as of November 30, 2014.

From the archives, here is my review. It appeared in The Metro Herald in May 1997 and contains some contemporaneous references that may be inscrutable to anyone born since 1994.

My Kind of Town . . . Chicago Is
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Stand aside, Comet Hale-Bopp -- there's a new star rising above the Washington horizon, and she's at the National Theatre! The new star is Belle Calaway, the understudy who took over the key role of Roxie Hart in the new touring company of Chicago, and blew away the crowd on opening night.

Jasmine Guy
Calaway and her co-star, Jasmine Guy, brought the audience to its feet with thundering applause. While Guy slithered sensually across the stage, Calaway exuded energy enthusiastically. A last minute replacement for Charlotte d'Amboise, who is nursing an injury and expected to return to the cast in about three weeks, Calaway evokes the spirit -- and star-power -- of Gwen Verdon, who created the musical role of Roxie Hart in 1975. In fact, Calaway's vocal and dance style nearly replicates Verdon's, a remarkable feat in itself. The question remains: If Calaway -- the understudy -- is this terrific, how good is d'Amboise herself? We'll see in a few weeks.

Chicago features one of the best scores by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who also wrote Cabaret (1966) and the dreadful (but Tony-winning) Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992). Conceived by the legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse, Chicago is a tuneful and sophisticated musical play. Like Cabaret, it contains hummable and memorable melodies and sharp, crackling lyrics.

Twenty-two years ago, Chicago was shut out of the Tony Awards by A Chorus Line, which at the time was groundbreaking but after its long Broadway run, numerous national tours, and a flop of a movie now seems hackneyed. Despite a respectable run of 868 performances that featured not only Gwen Verdon but the great Chita Rivera (and, succeeding that duo later, Liza Minnelli and Ann Reinking), Chicago had been largely forgotten until an "Encores" concert in New York last year. Its cynical look at the press and judicial system simply did not fit in to American culture at that time. Today -- in the era of two Menendez brothers trials, two O.J. Simpson verdicts, and Court-TV's rising popularity -- it seems more timely and relevant than ever.

This became crystal clear when Billy Flynn, the city of Chicago's hotshot lawyer, first appeared on stage. The National Theatre audience gasped when actor Obba Babatundé strode through the orchestra to sing his first number, "All I Care About [Is Love]" -- for Babatundé bears an uncanny resemblance to Johnnie Cochran, a hotshot lawyer in his own right.

It's difficult to find something not to praise in this production. Ann Reinking's choreography recreates the style of Bob Fosse in a way that deserves hearty appreciation, for the art of the dance has been suffering in recent musicals. (For example, Paper Moon, reviewed favorably in these pages a few weeks ago, had serviceable but unremarkable choreography. This, unfortunately, represents a sad trend in American musical theatre, which was once driven by such creative choreographers as Agnes de Mille, Michael Kidd, Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett -- and Bob Fosse.) Fosse's style -- a unique blend of modern dance, ballet, athleticism, and sexual energy -- is often attempted but seldom accurately rendered. It lends itself to injury -- not only D'Amboise, but Reinking herself has been sidelined in recent weeks -- and is perhaps the greatest challenge to a dancer. When it is done right -- as it is done here -- the Fosse style is eye-popping and jaw-dropping. "How do they do that?" comes to mind quite often.

Walter Bobbie, the director, has reconceived the show that builds upon Fosse's original concept and takes it to its logical conclusion. A simple set, which includes the orchestra on stage (a conceit that originated with Cabaret), forces most of the action onto a narrow apron, which makes that action so much more intimate to the audience. Costumes are limited to black, white, and shades of grey. The stage itself is largely black, with a few frames in gold and the glinting gold of the brass instruments complementing the blackness. Props are limited to a few chairs and feathered fans (don't ask, just go see for yourself). Lighting is emphasized, with golden and white pools creating focus and definition.

In its original incarnation, Chicago was billed as "A Musical Vaudeville." Today it bills itself as "The Drop-Dead Broadway Musical." Both are true. Structurally, the play is a series of vaudeville-type numbers, introduced by various characters in the style of a vaudeville emcee. These numbers, however, advance the plot and define the characters as effectively as any written by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Stephen Sondheim.

In a nutshell, the plot is this: Chorus-girl Roxie Hart shoots and kills her boyfriend, expecting her Casper Milquetoast husband to take the rap. Instead, she goes to jail and hires Billy Flynn as her attorney, who promises to manipulate the media and the jury to obtain a "not guilty" verdict. Then, as a celebrity murderess, she can go on tour as a -- you guessed it -- vaudeville star. Interacting with Roxie is Velma Kelly (Jasmine Guy), another murderess who has hired Billy and expects the same result. The predatory press itself plays a major role, showing us that not much has changed between 1927 and 1997.

So many performers stand out it is hard to single them out. Carol Woods is at her throaty best as Matron "Mama" Morton, the jail keeper. M.E. Spencer is cloyingly pollyannish as reporter Mary Sunshine. And Ron Orbach is practically invisible -- believe me, that's good -- as Roxie's sad-sack husband, Amos, who does a star turn himself in the amusing number, "Mister Cellophane."

Chicago is not a family musical. It contains adult themes and rough language. It is also a historical landmark of American musical theatre. No one who loves musical theatre can afford to miss Chicago.
Trivia tidbit: the real-life Chicago murder case on which the musical is based (also the basis for the 1942 Ginger Rogers movie Roxie Hart) was covered by a "girl reporter" named Ione Quinby, who later in life was an agony-aunt columnist for The Milwaukee Journal, writing as Ione Quinby Griggs or, simply, "Mrs. Griggs." Whether her choice of a 50-year career as a staple of the back page of the Journal's "Green Sheet" was inspired by the character of "Mary Sunshine" is not known to me.

No comments: