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Toronto by Antonio Tan

Chicago and Chita are back
better than ever!

February just got a little bit hotter, and a little bit sexier, as Toronto welcomes back its favourite story (or musical, to be exact) of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery - as well as one of its legendary stars.

Chicago, the drop-dead Broadway musical is back - better than ever - with the original 1975 Velma Kelly, Chita Rivera, returning to the show she helped make famous. However, the spunky kick-ass Broadway legend is not playing Velma again. This time, she is playing the killer chorine, Roxie Hart, who murders her lover and manipulates the media to become a celebrity. And folks, she can still bring 'em to their feet.

Ms. Rivera is terrific as Roxie Hart. She can still charm the pants off of anyone with her acting, singing and dancing. Dressed up in some new and glittery costumes, she dances up a storm in such infectious Kander and Ebb numbers as "Roxie" and "Me and My Baby," even though her dancing is not what it used to be. Unfortunately, the legendary 66-year old pair of legs can no longer do those leaps and strenuous Fosse-style choreography by Ann Reinking. (And indeed, Ms. Rivera looks good for her age. An audience member was pleasantly surprised to learn of Chita's age, citing that she thought she looked 45, at the most!) She can still do the Fosse style, but her moves are a bit rigid, and not as tight as her singing and acting. But we can't complain, since she does put on such a searing performance.

Paired up with Ms. Rivera is the attractive long-legged Stephanie Pope as Velma Kelly, the vaudeville star who murders her husband. It is apparent at the moment Ms. Pope makes her grand entrance on the elevator, with the blinding white light behind casting her silhouette, that she is a commanding force to be reckoned with. Her characterization of Velma provides the show with an abundance of soul and attitude. However, her dancing, while incredible, is an apparent mechanization of the Fosse technique, as is seen with her replacement of the style's grace and wit with tougher, sharper and edgier movements.

As for chemistry between Ms. Rivera and Ms. Pope - there does not seem to be much. Towering over Roxie, you have to wonder why Velma would team up with her in the end. Unfortunately, Ms. Pope also has to play second fiddle to Chita, as seen when dancing a foot behind her in "Hot Honey Rag," as if she is bowing down to the Broadway legend (normally, Velma would dance beside Roxie, not behind).

Michael Berresse is very suave as the lawyer Billy Flynn, the lawyer who acquits Velma and Roxie of their crimes. He displays perfect comic timing and possesses a pleasant voice, but the only element of his performance that requires more fleshing out is the sleaze. Ernie Sabella, as Amos Hart, Roxie's loser-husband, is quite lovable, and does a wonderful vaudeville send-up with his show-stopping "Mr. Cellophane." Marcia Lewis as Matron "Mama" Morton, the butch prison warden of the Cook County Jail, shows us why she was nominated for a Tony Award - her performance is absolutely perfect, providing a lot of sleaze, as well as warmth, in her role. And M.E. Spencer, as the tabloid reporter Mary Sunshine, combines humour with a stunning operatic voice.

As for the ensemble cast - wow. They are quite impressive, not only dancing-wise, but acting wise. And they are very, very sexy, I might add. You won't see so many delicious (and perfectly sculpted) bodies on stage at a single time in your life. Their Tony-nominated outfits (designed by William Ivey Long) are quite revealing and racy. Perhaps it is better off they went nude instead of having to perform in those tight-fitting skimpy outfits. But leave that to the imagination, ladies and gentlemen...

As for Ann Reinking's sensual Tony-winning Fosse style choreography, it remains intact for the most part, but there have been some changes made to accommodate Ms. Rivera, and also some other revisions that have been made for the better. For example, "Me and My Baby" has been "edited" and the final half has turned into a strut, and no longer contains the gigantic leaps and kicks. "Hot Honey Rag," the only original Bob Fosse number in the show, is performed sans the workout. Ms. Rivera and Ms. Pope perform the moves very lightly (and Stephanie Pope dances a foot behind Chita Rivera, as mentioned above), though the only real changes are the elimination of the cartwheels, and the ending of the number on one knee. With those changes, the "Hot Honey Rag" is less breathtaking.

If you saw the Roxie touring company at The Princess of Wales Theatre last year, make sure you catch this one currently in Toronto. The performance given by this Las Vegas-bound company led by Chita Rivera is sophisticated and classy, as opposed to the Roxie company's corny sitcom. After seeing this cast, I think I can die happy now.

If you have one reason to see this show, don't see Chicago just because of Chita Rivera's heavenly performance. Seeing this drop-dead musical because it is one of the most electrifying nights out at the theatre is probably the best argument.

And Las Vegas: You're in for a treat.

CHICAGO at The Princess of Wales Theatre. Now through February 26, 1999. Tickets: $20 - $93. Call (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333. Performance schedule varies. Ben Vereen is expected to join the show in the last half of the run.

And in other news...

The Canadian premiere of The Lion King was announced this past Tuesday, February 2 at a press conference at The Royal Alexandra Theatre, with the Broadway cast performing numbers from the show. David and Ed Mirvish will be presenting the show in association with Walt Disney Theatricals at The Princess of Wales Theatre beginning March 30, 2000, with the opening night set for April 25, 2000.

The estimated $20 million (CDN) Tony Award-winning musical will be in Toronto for only 22 months, after which it will go on tour. Casting will commence in March, 1999.

Tickets go on sale September 1999, and will range from $45 to $115. Royal Alexandra Theatre subscribers will get a first stab at tickets, as the show will be part of their subscription season next year.

Antonio Tan,

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