`Chicago': third time is a charmer

TheaterReview

October 30, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Hello, suckers. Welcome back," the character of Velma Kelly says to the audience after intermission in the musical Chicago.

So what does that make us? Not suckers. Granted, this is the third time Baltimore has welcomed a touring production of the stylish and steamy Tony Award-winning Broadway revival. But the top-notch company playing the Lyric Opera House through Sunday is very welcome indeed.

For theatergoers who have seen the recent Academy Award-winning movie, taking the show in this time around will be a different experience. Although the movie seems to have increased interest in the stage version, what's on stage is stylistically very different from what's on screen.

This revival of Chicago (score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by Ebb and Bob Fosse) began in 1996 as a concert presentation directed by Walter Bobbie. Six months later, when Bobbie's interpretation opened on Broadway, it retained many of its concert trappings, chief among them, the large bandstand that occupies most of the stage. The show gets away with this because it was originally conceived as a vaudeville-style entertainment, whose stars are a pair of chorus girls-turned-murderesses.

The cast at the Lyric boasts a number of impressive veterans of the still-running Broadway production. The standout, however, is dynamo Bianca Marroquin as Roxie Hart - the chorus girl who cuckolds her husband, shoots her lover and lusts after fame.

Marroquin looks like a cross between Shirley MacLaine and Gwen Verdon (who created the role of Roxie) and sings with a voice that can be cute and perky, or rumble with a sexy growl. Her overall stage presence demonstrates similar range, although comic spunk is her greatest asset - watch her pantomime the tearjerker biography her lawyer concocts for her, or grab the conductor's baton and lead the band with lickety-split gusto.

The show's other major revelation is R. Bean as sob-sister reporter Mary Sunshine. Easily the best Sunshine I've seen, Bean, who played this role for four years on Broadway, has an operatic upper register that is all the more astounding after the audience is let in on the secret behind the character.

Other distinguished performances are delivered by Carol Woods as mercenary prison matron "Mama" Morton and smooth-crooning Gregory Harrison as celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn. As Roxie's rival, Velma Kelly, Brenda Braxton has some trouble competing vocally with the first-rate band, but her demeanor and dancing have an edgy quality well-suited to Fosse's dark style (the choreography is credited to Gary Chryst, who re-created the work of Ann Reinking, which was, in turn, "in the style of Bob Fosse").

When Chicago debuted on Broadway in 1975, it met with a mixed reception. "Sardonic wasn't in that year," Ebb explains in the new memoir, Colored Lights. Well, times have changed. A show about society turning killers into celebrities is now so well accepted that the movie version earned a PG-13 rating. And the "merry murderesses" on stage at the Lyric are a thoroughly entertaining lot.

Chicago is the inaugural offering by TheatreDreams, the organization booking shows into the Lyric under the banner "the Broadway Show Club." First-rate in just about every respect, this touring production is not only a "razzle dazzler" (to paraphrase a lyric), it also bodes well for the future of this new series.

Chicago

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 tonight-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $38-$73

Call: 866-597-4200

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