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In the pulse-racing revival of the musical "Chicago," which opened Thursday night at the Richard Rodgers Theater, all the world's a con game, and show business is the biggest scam of all.
It makes a difference, though, when the hustle involves a cast of top-flight artists perfectly mated to their parts and some of the sexiest, most sophisticated dancing seen on Broadway in years.
By the time the priceless Bebe Neuwirth, playing a hoofer turned murderer, greets the audience at the beginning of the second act with the salutation "Hello, suckers!," it's a label we're all too happy to accept. The America portrayed on stage may be a vision of hell, but the way it's being presented flies us right into musical heaven.
This sharp-edged, self-defined tale of "murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery" received a healthy initial run in the mid-1970s but very ambivalent reviews.
Even with such mesmerizing stars as Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, swell vaudeville-pastiche songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb and the acutely stylish direction and choreography of Bob Fosse, "Chicago" seemed too chilly, in those days, to be truly loved in the way "Oklahoma!" or "A Chorus Line," its warmhearted contemporary and rival, might be.
Yet this new incarnation, directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Ann Reinking (who also stars), makes an exhilarating case both for "Chicago" as a musical for the ages and for the essential legacy of Fosse, whose ghost has never been livelier than it is here.
There's been talk in the press that theatergoers, in the era of O.J. Simpson and Amy Fisher, are now more likely to accept the work's jaded take on pathological celebrity worship and a fractured justice system. But that's not what makes this "Chicago" so immensely appealing.
What this production makes clear is how much "Chicago" is about the joy of seducing an audience that goes to the theater, above all, to be seduced. Fosse, who had a fiercely conflicted relationship with his profession, may have regarded entertainers as applause-addicted grifters. (Take another look at his autobiographical movie, "All That Jazz," if you want confirmation.)
Yet he also reveled in the adrenaline rush that comes from singers and dancers doing what they do best, at their best. Every number in this "Chicago" (and most of them are show-stoppers) buzzes with an implicit, irresistibly arrogant declaration: "Watch me. What I'm about to do is going to be terrific, and you're going to love every second of it."
This sensibility was already evident when the show, which is set in the violence-drunken Chicago of the 1920s (and based on Maurine Dallas Watkins' play of that period), was staged last spring in a concert version as part of the Encores! series at City Center.
Underscoring the conceit of this musical as a self-conscious series of vaudeville turns, the show (which had the same stars and much of the same production team) brought down the house, using only minimal scenery and costumes.
Still, there were worries about how the production might transfer to Broadway. To dress it up more elaborately for a big house might dilute what was magic about it to begin with. On the other hand, would theatergoers paying top ticket prices of $70 feel cheated by the lack of the flashy scenery and special effects to which they had become accustomed?
Well, this is not a show to leave anyone feeling bilked. The revival's creators have indeed retained the spare visual essence of what was seen at City Center. The orchestra (still sublime under the direction of Rob Fisher) remains center stage in John Lee Beatty's witty evocation of a giant witness box in a courtroom.
An elevator (for grand entrances and exits) has been added, but most of the scenery is still nothing more than some chairs and ladders. And nearly everything, down to the last, flesh-framing inch of William Ivey Long's sleek costumes, is in shades of black and white, set off by Ken Billington's expert film-noir lighting.
And yet somehow everything feels richer, like an expensive, perfectly constructed sheath from a designer like Mainbocher. It creates the ideal environment for a tribute to the illusions that can be woven out of air by the right combination of music, actors, singers and dancers. And each of the performances has been polished like the Astors' silver.
Much of the credit, of course, goes to Bobbie, whose delightfully inventive direction sustains just the right tone of heady irony.
Ms. Reinking, a former dancer for Fosse (and, for a time, his companion), has brought her own light-handed sparkle in evoking the Fosse spirit, and the corps de ballet couldn't be better, physically capturing the wry, knowing pastiche of some of Kander and Ebb's best songs.
Dance for Fosse, a man who came of age backstage at Chicago's bump-and-grind houses, always had an air of the striptease. And the numbers, which usually begin with Kander's gripping, sustained vamps, are all built on the idea of tantalizing.
They often start with Fosse's come-hither pelvic thrusts and finger snapping, segue into slow, silky routines (punctuated by eruptions of splits and leaps) and finally burst into orgasmic displays of energy that never spin out of control.
It's hard to know where to start in singling out cast members. Ms. Reinking's Roxie Hart, the over-the-hill chorine who becomes a star when she murders her straying lover, emerges as the most entertainingly erotic cartoon character since Jessica Rabbit.
Every vocal inflection and gesture is writ large (watch how she keeps extending her arms as if to embrace an entire adoring throng) but also with precise, elegant calligraphy.
Ms. Reinking meets her match, though, in her co-star. As Velma Kelly, a vaudevillian in jail for a bloody crime of passion and Roxie's competitor in publicity seeking, Ms. Neuwirth has translated her deadpan comic persona and technical proficiency as a dancer into an ecstatic, benchmark performance.
The deliciously mechanical wriggle in her walk embodies the very soul of the show. And to see her turn her legs into a pair of air-slicing scissors, her face set in a bewitching expression of self-satisfaction, is like falling in love, against your better judgment, with a specialist in breaking hearts.
James Naughton, a superb musical leading man who in another age would have the status of a Robert Preston, brings flawless timing and a velvety crooner's voice to the role of the press-manipulating lawyer. Marcia Lewis, as a predatory prison matron, and D. Sabella, as a gooey gossip columnist who is not what she appears to be, have refined what were already superior performances.
And as Amos, Roxie's limp dupe of a husband, Joel Grey (best known as the decadent emcee in another Kander-Ebb musical, "Cabaret") achieves the miracle of turning passivity into pure show-biz electricity, all the more arresting for being kept a low voltage.
Amos' big number, "Mr. Cellophane," is a lament on the worst thing that could befall an actor: not to be noticed. "You can look right through me," he wails. "Chicago" is, of course, all about being noticed, with the characters' lust for attention mirrored by that of the performers playing them.
The show takes the bold extra step of breaking down the methodology of getting attention in a musical. When Roxie sings of the raptures of being famous, she summons a phalanx of chorus boys to "frame me better." Her lawyer lets us know in advance just how he's going to sing to win over reporters (and then does so using Roxie as a ventriloquist's dummy). And when Velma rehearses her appearance on the witness stand, it's a dancer's anatomy lesson.
See, the performers seem to be saying, what we're doing is all illusion and you're falling for it. Or as a line from the song "Razzle Dazzle" has it, "Long as you keep 'em way off balance, how can they spot you got no talents?"
Nonsense. This production isn't smoke and mirrors. It's flesh and blood shaped, by discipline and artistry, into a parade of vital, pulsing talent. If there's any justice in the world (and "Chicago" insists that there isn't), audiences will be exulting in that parade for many, many performances to come.
CHICAGO PRODUCTION NOTES:
Chicago. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse; music by John Kander; lyrics by Ebb; based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins; original production directed and choreographed by Fosse. Based on the presentation by City Center's Encores! Directed by Walter Bobbie; choreography by Ann Reinking, in the style of Fosse. Music director, Rob Fisher; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by William Ivey Long; lighting by Ken Billington; sound by Scott Lehrer; original orchestration by Ralph Burns; dance-music arrangements by Peter Howard; script adaptation by David Thompson; musical coordinator, Seymour Red Press; associate producer, Alecia Parker; presented in association with Pace Theatrical Group. Presented by Barry and Fran Weissler, in association with Kardana Productions. At the Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46th St., New York.
With: Ann Reinking (Roxie Hart), Bebe Neuwirth
(Velma Kelly), James Naughton (Billy Flynn), Joel Grey (Amos Hart), Marcia Lewis (Matron
"Mama" Morton) and D. Sabella (Mary Sunshine).
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