Chicago Tour is Sexy Fun, but Stops Short of Stratosphere

The national tour of Chicago, with all its gin and sin, has slunk onto the stage of Wolf Trap in DC, once again putting before audiences the saga of rival murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.

The production keeps its energy at a consistently high pitch, offers a talented armada of dancers and finds an ideal Roxie in Michelle DeJean. However, other lead performances are uneven and the revival itself is--dare I say it--overrated.

To admit that one is less than passionate about the Chicago revival may be tantamount to admitting that one feels distaste for chocolate—so perhaps an explanation is in order. Chicago, as a musical, is absolutely brilliant—a scathing satire of celebrity as a three-ring media circus. Originally seen on Broadway in 1975, it was ahead of its less jaded times and, while a commercial success, was famously overshadowed by A Chorus Line. With the revival (which has run for almost 10 years now and inspired an Oscar-winning film), Ann Reinking created near-copulatory choreography inspired by Bob Fosse's original and under the direction of Walter Bobbie, its look was stripped down to a set of darkly abstract bones with the orchestra planted up onstage--think an S&M club run by Bertolt Brecht.

Chicago4a.jpg" vspace="0"/>Some of Bobbie's choices are striking and Reinking's choreography is often exciting; there's much to applaud and audiences having their first encounter with the show will probably greet it with a rapturous standing ovation.  Yet the revival is a far conceptual cry from the production originally envisioned by its creators--a seamy vaudeville about two aging, slightly grotesque chorines aching to seize the spotlight by any means necessary (much of the vaudeville context, unfortunately, was also minimized for the revival—i.e. a ladder's taking the place of the torch song piano of "Funny Honey").

Roxie's exclamation before the song bearing her name—"I'm older than I ever intended to be"—is the key to the neglected subtext. It's hard to consider the plight of two women clutching at the shreds of optimistic youth when watching Roxies and Velmas who might live at Bally's Total Fitness, with perky breasts, toned abs and the ability to look dynamite in William Ivey Long's black vinyl and lace costumes (not to claim that original stars Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera were exactly out-of-shape). Sure, '20s Chicago was a sexy, sinful place—but for Roxie and Velma, sex is a weapon that's losing its edge.

Chicago's plot is familiar to most by now: B-grade chorus girl Roxie shoots her lover in a crime of passion, upstages fellow show biz murderess Velma and allows lawyer Billy Flynn to manipulate the public's sympathies and secure her freedom (but not necessarily lasting fame).

Roxie, Velma and Billy are three of the best showcase roles in musical theatre, but only one of the lead performers in the touring company completely soars. DeJean gives a richly multifaceted portrayal or Roxie, a woman who can only think highly of herself when her photo is plastered in a newspaper. DeJean, who dances with skill and grace and has a ravishing belt voice, gives us a Roxie who is at once, lewdly goofy, self-absorbed, sad, calculating, childish and vulnerable. She nails Roxie's poignant fear of being a nobody, as well as the character's inability to accept that she is past her prime.

Terra MacLeod, with her shiny chignon and Betty Boop eyes, is an appealingly hard-bitten and energetiChicago3a.jpg" vspace="0"/>c Velma—she's at her (flexible) best in "But I Can't Do It Alone." Yet she's not as dynamic as DeJean, and only really scratches at the surface of her jealous, competitive character. Gregory Harrison is competent, but disappointing in the role of Billy Flynn. His "All I Care About is Love" is feather-fan wispy and he fails to fully convey the smarmy charm of the oily attorney.

Carol Woods and Kevin Carolan are both fabulous in their respective roles of Matron "Mama" Morton and Amos Hart. As Mama Morton, with her cheerfully quid-pro-quo philosophy, Woods commands the stage with a poise and pizzazz that would swallow the scenery if there was more of it. Her "When You're Good to Mama" is sublime, and even John Kander would mostly approve of the riffs with which she embroiders his music (the greatness of his and Fred Ebb's score never seems to age). Carolan is touching as Amos, Roxie's unassuming husband. He offers a fascinatingly passive-aggressive "Mr. Cellophane," shimmying white gloves like sad jellyfish.

The ensemble is comprised of fiercely talented dancers, although the ladies of "Cell Block Tango" are too aggressively exaggerated to mine all the comedy from their boiling-mad mini-monologues. The dancers also display a sort of dazzling and precise human machinery in numbers such as "When Velma Takes the Stand," showing the Fosse-esque gyrations, thrusts and dips to great advantage. (It's somewhat remarkable, too, how their energy levels endure for the two and a half hour show performed in muggy weather at a partially outdoor theatre—do they run to Starbucks at intermission?)

Though the revival misses some of the sting of its original concept, Chicago is a show that's too well-constructed and well-written not to generate some steam. DeJean's superb Roxie takes the show back to its roots as a grandly entertaining exposé of show biz desperation.

For more information and tickets, visit www.wolftrap.org.

Photos by Andi Kling/courtesy of Wolf Trap
1--Michelle DeJean, Gregory Harrison and company performing "They Both Reached for the Gun"
2--Carol Woods, Michelle DeJean, and Terra MacLeod




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From This Author Maya Cantu

Maya Cantu Maya Cantu recently graduated from Virginia's James Madison University, where she majored in theatre. She is very excited about starting her MFA in Dramaturgy and (read more...)

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