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: Bianca Marroquin, Brenda Braxton, Kevin Chamberlin, Usher, with Lillias White, R. Lowe, and Donna Marie Asbury, Gregory Butler, Mindy Cooper, Bryn Dowling, Gabriela Garcia, Denis Jones, David Kent, Dan LoBuono, J. Loeffelholz, Sharon Moore, Denny Paschall, Michelle Potterf, Josh Rhodes, Matthew Risch, Michelle M. Robinson, Mark Anthony Taylor, Jennifer West, Eric Jordan Young.
It's all show biz, kid, at the Ambassador nowadays. That's not necessarily a terrible thing: If you head there for the revival of Chicago, which is still packin' 'em in and knockin' 'em dead after nearly 10 years, you're guaranteed a great show. Just don't expect it to be about two women who trade in their criminal notoriety for entertainment stardom. That might be the ostensible storyline of the still-sizzling John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse show, but who has time for it when there's a Broadway Musical to put on?
The sheer joy of putting on a show is now the most dazzling star of Chicago, and - like all great headliners - affects those surrounding it. Perhaps no one is more infatuated than Usher, the 27-year-old pop-R&B superstar who recently assumed the role of the silver-fork-tongued courtroom dynamo Billy Flynn. He may have reignited box-office interest in a revival that, despite its ubiquity, has long seemed yesterday's news, but can he hold his own on a stage that boasts now, as always, some of musical theatre's most poised and polished professionals?
Worry not. Yes, when Usher makes his initial entrance, the assemblage - mostly young, female, and excitable - explodes with the kind of coruscating energy and ear-piercing volume usually reserved for rock concerts. But after that din recedes into an expectant hush, Usher delivers his first song, "All I Care About," in which Billy (unconvincingly) cites love for his fellow man is his sole inspiration, with a milky, solidly trained, and - dare one say it? - attractive voice. Theatregoers might well quickly realize what Usher's legions of fans have known for a while: he's got the vocal goods.
If his acting is visibly more unsure - his choices are ill formed when they're at all discernible, his comic timing is at best rudimentary, and he never seems more natural than when fondling the eye-popping women of the ensemble - he's not lacking in stage presence. His slick, confident dancing, put to superb use in the media-manipulating "We Both Reached for the Gun" and the jury-tampering "Razzle Dazzle," also conjures up moments of unpredictable heat. And when he really lets go, he looks like he's having the time of his life.
His better costars demonstrate that they're likewise not immune to such go-for-broke enthusiasm. Perhaps no one has ever injected more of herself into prison matron Mama Morton than Lillias White, who's arrived at the Cook County Jail by way of a Dreamgirls bus-and-truck: The endless melismas adorning her "When You're Good to Mama," are as contextually inappropriate as they are vocally and theatrically thrilling. But when the goal is caressing Kander's music and coyly flirting with audience expectations, who can argue? And if R. Lowe is never particularly believable as Mary Sunshine, this sob-sister reporter's flighty soprano trilling has seldom sounded this coquettishly rich.
What state is the rest of Chicago in? Intermittently ill. For every ensemble member evincing vibrant, chiseled originality (longtime Chicago veterans Michelle M. Robinson and Donna Marie Asbury remain side-splitting standouts; understudy Melissa Rae Mahon was a sexy and scintillating Go-to-Hell Kitty at the performance I attended), another is apparently just going through the motions of Walter Bobbie's direction and Ann Reinking's athletic, Fosse-infused choreography. Kevin Chamberlin's firmly funny invisible man Amos isn't an adequate substitute for a stiletto-sharp orchestra; the band has grown rather sloppy of late under Leslie Stifelman's baton, and Ralph Burns's tremendous orchestrations are not always well served.
Nor is the central duo of merry murderesses, where Chicago's heart and most angular soul are usually to be found. Respectively inhabiting Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, Bianca Marroquin and Brenda Braxton are capable dancers, singers, and actresses who fulfill all their roles' requirements except for the faintest sparks of charisma. Braxton's knack for vanishing into the ensemble during larger dance numbers - especially the iconic opener, "All That Jazz," which she leads - is dwarfed only by Marroquin's consistently vanishing into John Lee Beatty's set during her solos.
A cynic could claim that their presence (such as it is) was calculated to make stage neophyte Usher look better still. While I'm unwilling to go that far, that mission has nonetheless been accomplished. If Usher looks more like a first-year law school student than an established sleaze of a lawyer, and if his William Ivey Long-designed tuxedo fits him like an oversized rental for a second cousin's wedding, his legitimate magnetism is impossible to conceal, and boosts a Chicago in need of all the personality it can get.
Whatever Usher lacks in performing chops, he compensates with this, Chicago's chief requirement. The tendency of musicals of recent seasons to reduce gifted artists to synthetic, wind-up automatons has not infected this production, and likely never can. Even if this Chicago isn't currently all it can be, isn't it a thrill to be reminded that performers, doing what they love with great material, can still be a musical's most important, invigorating fuel?