Let’s Pick up the Pace and Go to Hell in a Fast Car: Kander & Ebb’s Chicago Serves Up Some ‘Razzle Dazzle’

Imagine this: a steamy jazz club.  A saxophone whining and groaning into the smoky air.  Dancers in their racy costumes, warming up.  All of a sudden, the song segues into a rag-tag big band number, and under a single spotlight stands headliner Velma Kelly in a rendition of a familiar song.  Well, stop dreaming, because re-living the Roarin’ Twenties has come to life in the form of the acclaimed Kander and Ebb musical, Chicago.  Rife with choreography by legend Bob Fosse, Chicago is a mix of laughs, greed, and sex.

The story surrounds the case of Roxanne “Roxie” Hart, a wannabe vaudeville star charged with the crime of killing her lover, Fred Casely, with whom she’d been having an affair.  The renowned musical is a satire that takes hits on politics, the law, and the impact of the media; it also reflects a time of liberation amongst women, in which they were starting to recognize their sexuality and the power they possess over men.

The first act starts out with “All That Jazz”, the popular number that gave Bebe Neuwirth a Tony in the 1997 revival.  It is here where my fascination with Fosse-esque choreography is refreshed.  Much different than that of Rob Marshall’s in his Ocscar-winning 2002 screen adaptation, Fosse’s choreography is notoriously precise and abstract, and this particular performance is a prime example of why Bob Fosse is a legend.  For the current production, Ann Reinking – who’d starred opposite Neuwirth as Roxie Hart – updates Fosse’s moves, serving as the revival’s choreographer, which is beautifully captured and stylized throughout the evening’s show.  Some choreography, however, disappointed me, most specifically in the “I Can’t Do it Alone” segment, which is one of my favorite songs and parts from the movie.  Onstage, however, it had been choreographed with more child-like motions, to bring out the fact that Velma was indeed talented.  One supposes, however, that perhaps the campy aspects of numbers such as these were to receive laughs, which is considerably the main objective of the show’s concept; we are to laugh at the seriousness these characters take into wanting to be in the spotlight.

As the first act wears on, the cell block girls – consisting of Liz (Michelle M. Robinson), Annie (Gabriela Garcia), June (Sharon Moore), The Hunyak (Emily Fletcher), and Mona (Robyn Hurder) – give their rendition of the “Cell Block Tango”, which remains a popular favorite among audiences who have seen the film.  Here, one may start to notice the show’s minimalist set design, as there are no cell bars, unlike those seen in the movie.  Instead, each girl is given their own chair from which to regale the audience with their respective monologues, which still receive laughs.

The stage setting gave one that intimate feeling, as if the whole story was unfolding before us in a tiny jazz club during that era.  The orchestra sat onstage, in plain view, which brings to mind a heavy Brechtian influence.  Various characters, including at times the conductor of the orchestra, announce the entrance of the characters as a new number began – much as if a bandleader would announce acts in a club.

Another Brecht reference of note had been the absence of a Fourth Wall.  Throughout the production, many actors talk to the audience; the characters Roxie and Velma demonstrate this the most.  In the numbers “Roxie” and “I Know a Girl”, both of the respective characters rely on the audience’s participation.  This is further demonstrated later when Velma asks for her “exit music”, breaking out of character.

The show was not without its eye candy, either; Towards the second act, in “Razzle Dazzle”, the character Billy Flynn sings about distracting onlookers so that they won’t detect a farce, and with the dancers doing cirque-inspired moves, it had definitely been a sight to see.  Sequins at the end of the number also added to the feeling that one had traveled back to the glamour of the twenties.  By the time the “Nowadays” reprise came around, in which Roxie and Velma had joined forces, a glittering gold and silver background provided the high-energy atmosphere, as if we really had arrived at the Chicago Theater.

The cast itself yielded a plethora of multi-talented performers, all of whom simultaneously sang, danced, and acted.  The portrayal of each character revealed new dimensions that otherwise hadn’t been explored through different medium, such as Marshall’s film.  Played to comedic perfection by Bianca Marroquin, I felt that the stage version of Roxie, as opposed to Renee Zellweger’s screen interpretation, made her seem more street smart yet naïve, rather than just ditzy, as had been portrayed in the film.  In numbers such as ”Razzle Dazzle” and “Me and my Baby”, Marroquin’s performance had provided much of the comedic relief.  The trial scene, especially, had been where I found myself laughing the most, as the actors re-told the happenings of Roxie’s crime in a skewed way, and in the process emphasized Ms. Marroquin’s comedic chops.

The other star in the musical is the character Velma Kelly, played by Donna Marie Asbury.  Velma, a washed-up true vaudevillian lounge singer who’d murdered her sister and husband – after having found them in the kip together, no less – is more of a sarcastic and cynical character compared to Roxie.  However, Ms. Asbury was not without her share of funny bits, either – she proved worthy of the stage in songs such as “My Own Best Friend”, “I Can’t Do it Alone”, and “Class”.   

One number, however, that had the audience entranced, had been Roz Ryan’s performance of “When You’re Good to Mama”, as the Matron “Mama” Morton.  Ms. Ryan was a joy to watch, her powerhouse voice mesmerizing as she flirted with the audience, asking a viewer in the front row: “You like that, don’t you, baby?”  She fit the role to a T and was formidable against Donna Marie Asbury’s Velma Kelly.  I felt that Ms. Ryan and Ms. Asbury really had that certain chemistry in which they were playing off each other with great ease, which was evident when they dueted in “Class”.

Upon her entrance into the local jailhouse, Roxie’s case is soon picked up by notorious lawyer Billy Flynn.  With Flynn by her side, Roxie learns to manipulate the media and eventually ends up winning the trial.   By the time Bernard Dotson emerged as Flynn, the show was rolling.  Dotson’s portrayal as Flynn proved at once charming and comedic.  The height of his performance, I felt, occurred later in the second act, during the number “Razzle Dazzle”.

Rob Bartlett, who plays the character Amos Hart, Roxie’s devoted but stagnant husband, was another pleasing surprise.  Known mostly as a commentator on the Imus in the Morning radio show, Bartlett stole the stage (and garnered a few “aw’s” from the audience as well) in the number “Mister Cellophane”.  In the song, his character sings of being constantly ignored by everyone; however, this had the converse effect, as his performance gave us even more reason to keep watching out for him.

Another principal actor, R. Lowe, set a different whirl of emotion amongst audience members: that of confusion and intrigue.  It takes a certain kind of woman to play Marie Sunshine, the gullible yet revered newspaper reporter, and R. Lowe’s outstanding performance proves it.  As Mary Sunshine is introduced to us in the number “A Little Bit of Good”, it seems clear to everyone that things were not as they seemed.  Indeed, by the trial scene, it is revealed that Mary Sunshine is really –

Well, that’s a whole other story entirely.  In any case, if you love deception, greed and murder combined with comedy, as well as song and dance, then you will love Chicago.  So step back into a time of jazz and liquor, where you could become famous in an instant.  After all, there’s no other place that’ll let you get away with murder—that, indeed, is Chicago!

Images courtesy of Jeremy Daniel and Chicago opened on November 14, 1996 and is currently running at the Ambassador Theatre (219 West 49th Street).


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