Chicago Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Music by John Kander. Book by Fredd Ebb and Bob Fosse. Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Bob Fosse. Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Orchestrations by Ralph Burns. Musical Director Leslie Stifelman. Choreography by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Based on the presentation by City Center's Encores! Cast: Kara DioGuardi, Amra-Faye Wright, Tony Yazbeck, Chris Sullivan, with Carol Woods, R. Lowe, and Donna Marie Asbury, Nili Bassman, Nicole Bridgewater, Dylis Croman, Michael Cusumano, Jennifer Dunne, James Harkness, David Kent, James T. Lane, J. Loeffelholz, Melissa Rae Mahon, Peter Nelson, Jill Nicklaus, Brian O’Brien, Jason Patrick Sands, Brian Spitulnik, Tonya Wathen, Ryan Worsing.
It's okay to be stunned at this. The John Kander–Fred Ebb–Bob Fosse tuner has, after all, been playing on Broadway for just a few weeks shy of 15 years, and 6,200 performances is a tough obstacle for any show. Even the biggest hits frequently fade, fall apart, or close altogether before hitting that milestone. And this production, which recently became not only the longest-running American musical in history but within the last couple of months surpassed the run of A Chorus Line (which trounced the original Chicago at the Tonys and in the public's mind and heart back in 1975), has been teetering for years. The last time I saw it, just over five years ago, it looked as though director Walter Bobbie's work was becoming a distant memory, and enough that was tired and musically mushy that I wasn't sure it would last another full season.
Yet it has. And judging by what's onstage now, it deserves to. The orchestra, playing those flesh-melting Ralph Burns orchestrations of Kander's tunes and Peter Howard's incomparable dance arrangements, has been realigned by musical director and conductor Leslie Stifelman to be as brash and as sharp as I've ever heard them. The dancers are, of course, hot in every sense of the word, busting out of William Ivey Long's clingy nightclub-concert costumes to perform Ann Reinking's Fosse-inspired choreography with passion, precision, and precociousness missing in some of the more robotic casts of years past.
Then there are the leads. There are a number of surprises among them, beginning with Kara DioGuardi, the singer and musical entrepreneur who also appeared for a couple of years as a judge on American Idol. No one I've seen play Roxie Hart, the vaudeville aspirant who murders her affair and rides the publicity to popular superstardom, has ever looked more vividly 1920s than DioGuardi. Her flowing, wavy wig and face of kittenish innocence give her the reassuring appearance of an ad torn from a glamour magazine: the sense of a pristine woman for whom anything is truly possible.
So many Roxies are so hard-edged — to excellent effect — that it takes a while to warm up to DioGuardi's back-door approach. But as the action unfolds, she shows you that her doe-eyed amiability is merely a tool in her arsenal that she's prepared to exploit at any time. This Roxie is unpredictable in a way few are, and willing to be a victim of the world she helps create; she knows she's got the guts (and the gams) to rise above it. DioGuardi's singing is firm, if a bit thin, and trips with a conversational lilt through Ebb's lyrics that only increases the already strong charm factor. It should be mentioned, however, that she's doing entry-level choreography, but makes it work well enough with her personality that you almost don't miss the advanced stuff. (Almost.)
R. Lowe is one of the most satisfying Mary Sunshines I've seen, with one of the sweetest and most shimmering soprano-soaring voices that's just right for this sympathetic sob sister. Carol Woods is hardly new to the territory of prison matron Mama Morton, but she handles her brightly and well.
A couple of the actors are less successful. Velma Kelly, Roxie's literal and figurative partner in crime, is currently played by Amra-Faye Wright with a playfully acidic attitude. Wright doesn't employ much outraged astringency, and that hurts Velma's barely-a-survivor street cred somewhat. But with an honest determination on offer, as well as a solid and sexy performing style, Wright sails through all the role's requirements with grace (though never quite as effortlessly as the role's revival originator, Bebe Neuwirth). And as charming as Tony Yazbeck appears onstage, he radiates none of the authority or the tenacity that lawyer to the stars Billy Flynn requires; Yazbeck only ever looks completely comfortable during his few moments of dancing in "We Both Reached for the Gun" and "Razzle Dazzle."
One could also quibble with some of the songs' tempos, which are on the verge of becoming untenably zippy. There's no need to rush, and plenty of reason not to. Chicago's score contains so much wit, wisdom, and zing that you want to savor every millisecond of it you can, especially you're hearing so much of it in ways you never have before. Luckily, if the current cast is an indication of the general quality of replacements these days, chances are you'll have at least several more years to go back again and catch anything you missed.