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November 25, 1996

That Old Razzle-Dazzle


Chicago Was Once A Problem. Now It's A Triumph.

by RICHARD ZOGLIN
Time -- Volume 148 Issue 24 Page 102
Time Canada -- Volume 148 Issue 24 Page 80


In that dicey district known as Broadway, there are no sure bets, but reviving a cherished old musical comes close. Find a Rodgers and Hammerstein gem that's been away for a while or dust off a fondly remembered piece of froth like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and nostalgic theatergoers will probably beat a path to your stage door.

But Chicago, the 1975 musical about a '20s nightclub floozy who becomes a celebrity after shooting her lover, doesn't really fall into that category. Artifacts from the '70s (the comeback of bell-bottoms notwithstanding) haven't aged long enough to evoke much nostalgia. What's more, many critics found Chicago too dark and cynical to begin with; though the show ran for two years, it failed to win a single Tony Award, shut out by that feel-good steamroller A Chorus Line.

The stunning revival of Chicago that just opened on Broadway ought to win over any doubters. In a staging based on last season's acclaimed concert version by the enterprising Encores! series, Walter Bobbie's production is sleek, spare and diamond hard. The story of Roxie Hart is told in a series of fiercely stylized, irony-laced musical episodes. In the Cell Block Tango, Roxie's jailbird peers sing of the men they've bumped off. A slick defense attorney makes his entrance crooning "All I care about is love," accompanied by feather-waving chorines. In the climactic trial, Roxie beats the rap, only to be abandoned by reporters rushing on to the next sensational case. What seemed cynical in 1975 is now au courant. Chicago hasn't merely aged well; it has come of age.

The show may answer several questions for younger theatergoers curious about Broadway's past. For example: What was choreography? Ann Reinking has staged Chicago's dances in homage to original director and choreographer Bob Fosse (her live-in companion for several years), and one look at that distinctive Fosse style--bodies that slither and strut, every hunched shoulder or cocked head a seductive come-on--is a reminder of a whole lost vocabulary of Broadway dance. John Kander and Fred Ebb's score is a model of its craft. No detachable love ballads here, just a stream of tuneful, witty numbers that make their point, engage the ear and evoke an era without sounding like mere pastiche.

The cast is nearly perfect. Bebe Neuwirth is a taut and tangy showstopper as Roxie's jailhouse rival; Joel Grey makes mousiness memorable as Roxie's husband; and James Naughton is commanding and funny as her lawyer. Only Reinking, starring as Roxie (a role she first played in 1977), falls short: her lithe body hasn't let her down, but her husky, quavering voice does. Yet it's barely a smudge on a show that doesn't just give us the old razzle-dazzle; it glows.

PHOTO (COLOR): DAN CHEVKIN FOSSE LIVES: Neuwirth and company in the show's best-known number, All That Jazz



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