Updated: Jun 1
Who would have thought there could be such bliss in being played for a patsy?
In the pulse-racing rally tour of the musical CHICAGO, which opened Tuesday night at Segerstrom Hall, it seems that all the world's a con game, and the glitterati may be the biggest racket of all.
But all that chicanery doesn't make a bit of difference, when the hustle involves a cast of top-flight artists such as these, perfectly mated to their parts, bringing some of the sexiest, most sophisticated dancing seen on stage in years, flying us straight into musical heaven.
The story itself has been in front of an audience for almost 100 years. The 1926 Chicago trial of a woman who was acquitted of shooting her husband dead was covered by a female reporter, who, shortly after the trial ended, turned it into a successful stage play. The next year, famed film director Cecil B. DeMille made it into a silent movie. Then a talkie was made in the 1940s which starred Ginger Rogers. And the most recent, critically acclaimed film, starring an ensemble cast headed by Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, was produced in 2002, winning a total of six Academy Awards.
But none of them had Bob Fosse’s distinctive choreography — later channeled through his close protégé Anne Reinking — that has become synonymous with CHICAGO. Opening in 1975, the score was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and Ebb and Fosse wrote the book. In 1996 Reinking adapted Fosse’s choreography for a City Center Encores! concert staging, which was then expanded into a full production. It was a hit, and Anne won a Tony for Best Choreography. The first tour then started only six months later in Cincinnati, Ohio, after the revival opened on Broadway. The present APEX Tour, currently melting the Segerstrom main stage, will be presented through May 21st.
Today the show holds the record as the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. That history includes 6 Tony Awards®, 2 Olivier Awards, a Grammy®, and thousands of standing ovations. Bob Fosse reveled in the adrenaline rush that comes from singers and dancers doing what they do best, at their best. Every number in CHICAGO (most of them 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.''
And the numbers, which usually begin with Mr. 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, slowly segue into steamy, silky routines (punctuated by eruptions of splits and leaps) and finally burst into orgasmic displays of energy that never spin out of control. Complementing that is the satire that pervades Fred Ebb's terrific lyrics — as crisp as the audience's enthusiastic and constant handclaps. And if that's not enought, there's the all too timely skewering of celebrity worship and justice, caught to perfection in John Lee Beatty's sophisticated, minimalist set.
There’s an elevator (for grand entrances and exits) added, but most of the scenery is still nothing more than a few 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 for it, like an expensive, perfectly constructed sheath from a designer like, perhaps, Chanel. It creates the ideal environment for a tribute to the illusions that can be woven out of thin air by the right combination of music, actors, singers and dancers. And each of those performances has been polished like Elon Musk’s first Tesla. Soon, you begin to realize that with a show as dynamic as this, you really don’t need the chandeliers, do you?
It's hard to know where to start in singling out cast members. Roxie Hart (Katie Frieden), 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 large but also performed with precise elegance. She has a spectacular belt, a keen common sense, and dances with a verve that defines each of her numbers anew.
Ms. Frieden 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), Logan Floyd 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.
And, if confidence was everything, then Jeff Brooks says it all in the role of Billy Flynn, a veteran criminal lawyer with an oil slick for a tongue and a cash register for a heart. Mr. Brooks has the face and voice of a choirboy entertaining (and enjoying) impure thoughts, exuding not only sexual swagger in song, but producing a performance that speaks pleadingly of a bruisable soul beneath — of a heartbroken heartbreaker. For Billy Flynn, a soul is something you order meunière, preferably at your client’s expense.
What’s more, when this Billy, in a droll paean to the joys of his lucrative profession, sings that all he cares about is love, you believe him. Such a response was surely the last thing from the minds of the creators of CHICAGO. The sweetly sung notes and precisely executed serpentine dance moves in Mr. Brooks’ performance are shaded by a big awning of a smile that reads like a standing invitation to a perpetual private party.
As the prison matron, Mama Morton, Christina Wells threatens to rock the rafters in her big solo, "When You're Good to Mama." Her duet with Ms. Floyd later on, "Class," is equally effective, the two performers giving one honed comic performance. Another standout, Brian Kalinowski, as Roxie's almost invisible husband Amos, is also great in his scenes, and his second act showstopper "Mr. Cellophane," achieves the miracle of turning passivity into pure show-biz electricity, all the more arresting for being kept at low voltage.
So, if you've had it up to here with sentimentality, piety, and a positive view of mankind, this rollicking revival touring show will be a special treat for you. When they say they don't do musicals the way they used to, CHICAGO is the kind of winner they're talking about — as good now as it's ever been. It remains a heartening experience, a life-affirming dedication to the magic and art of theatre, and something that absolutely should not be missed. The glory and genius of CHICAGO should be celebrated while it's here, and with any luck, it will still be gracing and energizing the stage for many more years to come.
SEGERSTROM CENTER FOR THE ARTS AND APEX TOURING PRESENTS, CHICAGO; Book by FRED EBB & BOB FOSSE; Music by JOHN KANDER; Lyrics by FRED EBB; Based on the play by MAURINE DALLAS WATKINS; Original Production Directed and Choreographed by BOB FOSSE; Choreographer Original New York Production ANN REINKING, in the style of BOB FOSSE; Director Original New York Production WALTER BOBBIE; Based on the presentation by CITY CENTER’S ENCORES! Re-creation of Original Production Choreography by GARY CHRYST; Re-creation of Original Production Direction by TANIA NARDINI; Scenic Design by JOHN LEE BEATTY; Costume Design by WILLIAM IVEY LONG; Lighting Design by KEN BILLINGTON; Sound Design by SCOTT LEHRER; Supervising Music Director ROBERT BILLING; Music Director CAMERON BLAKE KINNEAR; Orchestrations by RALPH BURNS; Vocal Arrangements by ROB FISHER; Production Stage Manager ELLA JOHNSON.
STARRING: Velma Kelly: LOGAN FLOYD; Roxie Hart: KATIE FRIEDEN; Billy Flynn: JEFF BROOKS; Fred Casely : ED GOTTHELF; Sergeant Fogarty: ROBERT “SHAPIRO” GARRIS; Amos Hart: BRIAN KALINOWSKI; Liz: MEGAN CAMPBELL; Annie: JASMINE JANAE; June: JESS DIFORTE; Hunyak: LIZ LESTER; Mona: EVY VAUGHAN; Matron “Mama” Morton: CHRISTINA WELLS; Mary Sunshine: G.A. JAMES; Go-to-Hell-Kitty: SAMMY TUCHMAN; Harry: TAL KEDEM; The Doctor: TONY CARRUBBA; Aaron: LINCOLN BELFORD; The Judge: ASHER VAN METER; The Bailiff/The Jury: JAMES VESSELL; Martin Harrison: ROBERT “SHAPIRO” GARRIS; Court Clerk: TONY CARRUBBA.
UNDERSTUDIES: For Roxie Hart—EVY VAUGHAN; For Velma Kelly—JESS DIFORTE; For Billy Flynn—ASHER VAN METER; For Amos Hart—LINCOLN BELFORD; For Matron “Mama” Morton—MEGAN CAMPBELL; For Mary Sunshine—T. CARRUBBA; For Fred Casely—ASHER VAN METER; SWINGS: Michelle Attardo, Cate Benioff, Chase McFadden.
CHICAGO will run MAY 18–21, 2023 in Segerstrom Hall. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes; Performances are Tuesday–Friday at 7:30PM, Saturday at 2PM & 7:30PM (Accessibility Performance - Saturday, May 20 at 2PM), Sunday at 1PM & 6:30PM. For Tickets or further information, please see www.scfta.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jeremy Daniel