"In this town, murder is a form of entertainment," "Mama" Morton, the prison matron, proclaims near the beginning of "Chicago."
In 1975, when this darkly satirical musical opened, audiences didn't want to believe Mama. But times change. Two decades later, the Broadway revival is the biggest hit of the season. And the slick touring production at Washington's National Theatre makes it easy to see why.
For starters, something is going on in this show that is so old-fashioned, it's almost revolutionary. As directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Ann Reinking -- "in the style of Bob Fosse," the musical's original director, choreographer and co-author -- "Chicago" highlights dancing.
Unlike mega-musicals whose most exciting movable elements are chandeliers, helicopters and barricades, in "Chicago," all the movement is done by dancers. And if a show about merry murderesses can be said to be joyful, then the ghost of cynical Fosse would be delighted to know that these killers and their cohorts are a joy to behold.
"Chicago" -- the witty score is by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, who co-wrote the book with Fosse -- was conceived as a "musical vaudeville." Fosse and Ebb took the plot from a 1926 play about a Chicagoan named Roxie Hart who beats the rap for murdering her lover and parlays her notoriety into a vaudeville career. The musical, however, tells Roxie's story -- and that of Velma, a murderess who is her jealous rival for publicity -- as a series of vaudeville acts.
Roxie's lawyer makes his entrance with a half-dozen chorines framing him with ostrich-feather fans. As played by Otta Babatunde, he's an operator so oily-smooth he could be elected (at least in D.C.). His press conference with Roxie (Belle Calaway, filling in for an injured Charlotte d'Amboise) takes the form of a ventriloquist act with Roxie perched on his knee as the dummy. And "Mister Cellophane" -- the lament sung by Roxie's nonentity of a husband, a nebbish-y Ron Orbach -- is a homage to Bert Williams' trademark, "Nobody."
Most of all, however, this production is an homage to Fosse.Reinking -- a Fosse protege who is playing Roxie in New York -- retains only one of his numbers intact, the 11th-hour "Hot Honey Rag." But her mentor's signature is evident throughout the show, in every hunched shoulder, every staccato strut and every tightly clumped wedge of dancers. Even designer William Ivey Long's black-as-night costumes seem to be a salute to the late Fosse, who always wore black.
Not that all of the production's design is this successful. The revival got its start in the Encores! concert series at New York's City Center last spring. An instant hit, it transferred to Broadway virtually unaltered. The orchestra takes up most of the stage, seated on risers surrounded by a huge gilt picture frame.
Although the actors frequently make their entrances through the orchestra and most of the ensemble remains seated on the sidelines when not hoofing it up, John Lee Beatty's set restricts the playing area to the cramped space in front of the bandstand. Granted, this design can be seen as reinforcing the theme of being trapped -- if not by prison bars, then by greed, the lure of celebrity, whatever. But surely, if this revival had been envisioned as a full-fledged Broadway production from the start, it would have relied on a less awkward set.
Many of the major cast members are considerably different types from their Broadway counterparts. For the most part, these differences work to the road show's advantage, emphasizing the strengths of individuals instead of inviting comparisons to better-known stars. The most obvious example is the casting of tall, pudgy Orbach in the role being played by diminutive Joel Grey in New York.
As Velma, Jasmine Guy is the show's well-deserved star, coating her nasty character with a patina so hard and angry, she could probably spit nails as easily as sing -- though she is as coolly proficient a singer as she is a dancer. Understudy Belle Calaway is fine as Roxie -- maybe a bit too fine; tough Roxie should have sharper edges. And as "Mama" Morton, Carol Woods growls out a strong rendition of "When You're Good to Mama," though she, too, makes her opportunistic character a touch too warm-hearted.
At one point Roxie's lawyer informs her that she's nothing but a phony celebrity. Indeed, "Chicago" is an entire show about phony celebrity. But this production is the real thing.
Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. North NW, Washington
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 1
Pub Date: 4/18/97