Cincinnati is once again experiencing the "Razzle Dazzle" of Chicago, The Musical. With the Broadway revival still a top box office hit eight years into its run in New York, and on the heels of the award-winning 2002 blockbuster film version, the national tour of the show is a hot ticket on road too. As currently displayed at the Aronoff Center, Chicago remains a tightly formed and solidly executed theater experience sure to please almost every audience member.
Billed as a story of "murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery", the show tells the tale of two 1920s women, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, both awaiting trial in the Cook County jail for murder. Both women hope to transfer their notoriety into showbiz fame with the help of the prison matron Mama Morton, who knows how to pull all the right strings. However, they each first need to gain their freedom, and both hire slick lawyer Billy Flynn for assistance.
Chicago debuted on Broadway in 1975, but was overshadowed that year by A Chorus Line. It wasn't until the 1996 revival, based on an earlier Encores! concert staging, that the show garnered the accolades it deserved. The book by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb is structured as a vaudeville comedy, thus allowing for laughs and pizzazz while addressing the seedier side of life. The dance-filled storytelling exudes the sexy and steamy style of Fosse, and the dialogue showcases the wit and humor of Ebb at his best.
The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb is filled with now classic tunes - such as "All That Jazz", "Cell Block Tango", and "Nowadays" - which fit perfectly with this sophisticated, yet seductively stark story. Kander's thrilling music, with instantly memorable melodies, is best showcased in "Roxie" and "All I Care About." Ebb, who passed away earlier this month, provides masterful lyrics throughout. His work on "Class," where Velma and Mama Morton convey their dismay over the lack of manners by their 1920s contemporaries, uses everyday words and unforced rhymes magnificently to create a witty song well-suited to the characters and commenting wryly on the times and situation at hand. It is in "We Both Reached For the Gun" that Kander and Ebb, along with Fosse's unique vision, are at their finest. This not-so-subtle rendering of lawyer Flynn's manipulation of the press is theater genius.
The cast for this national tour has talent to spare and strong chemistry. As Roxie, Bianca Marroquin is wonderfully playful and captures the na´ve vulnerability and desperation of the character perfectly. Her acting and dancing are first rate; if her character singing voice doesn't overly impress, it is nevertheless suitable. Brenda Braxton displays a fittingly tough-as-nails attitude as Velma, getting all of the potential laughs from the role, and is a high-powered singer and dancer. Gregory Harrison's portrayal of Billy Flynn is necessarily smooth, charming, and extremely well sung. Carol Woods is warm, polished, and soulful as Mama Morton, and deservedly a crowd favorite. As Amos, Roxie's sad-sack husband, Ray Bokhour is appropriately downtrodden and scores well with his song "Mister Cellophane". R. Bean's Mary Sunshine is campy over-the-top. The ensemble, including recent CCM grad Angel Reda, executes the high-octane choreography with grace and sass.
Much of the success of this revival version is owed to Walter Bobbie's sharply focused direction and style, which strip away all that is unnecessary and shifts attention to the strong score and book, as well as the fluid and seductive choreography by Ann Reinking, closely based on Fosse's original work. Musical Director Vincent Fanuele leads the extremely capable onstage band, but the musical tempos seem unfortunately rushed at times. John Lee Beatty provides just enough scenic design, and lighting by Ken Billington is effective and apt. William Ivey Long's costumes are all in shades of black and heighten the sex appeal factor.
The story of Chicago closely mirrors the sensationalism of modern celebrity trials, and reminds us that the "razzle dazzle" atmosphere of media hype has almost as much cultural effect as anyone's real innocence or guilt. This slickly presented, superbly crafted and very well performed musical is in fine shape with this national tour and seems to have lots of life left in it.
Chicago continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through October 3, 2004. For tickets, call 513-241-7469.