Ms. Annan got her new name from a 1926 play titled "Chicago," written by a city crime reporter. She first appeared in movies in 1927, then again in 1942, was written as one of two main characters in a musical in 1975 that was revived in 1996. The revival is the longest running hit still playing on Broadway 17 years later, and the longest running revival in history. One of the national tours with David Hyslop credited as director of “re-creation” and musical direction by Jack Gaughan, is making a whistle stop in St. Louis this weekend, and it is, as always, most welcome.
"Chicago" is a wonderful show. It is arguably the best representation of the (Bob) Fosse style this side of the show Fosse. Aside from “All That Jazz,” it hasn’t spawned any stand-alone song hits like another classic, My Fair Lady, currently running at Stages, but the John Kander and Fred Ebb score is solid and most of the story is told through the musical numbers. The entire ensemble is on or hanging around the stage most of the time to dance or sing or engage in bits of business as disparate as framing sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn (John O’Hurley) with feather fans ala Sally Rand (except he’s wearing a tuxedo—all the time) or serving as a one man jury (Ian Campayno playing several hilarious characters). The women make up the “Six Merry Murderesses” who perform the show-stopping “Cell Block Tango” (“Pop! Six! Squish! Uh uh, Cicero, Lipschitz!”), and the entire ensemble generally looks slinky and sexy in the customary all black and very skimpy costumes, and as always in Fosse-choreographed shows, hats. Lots of hats.
1920s Chicago has a reputation as a hotbed of crime and lawlessness aggravated by Prohibition and the mobs it inspired. Al Capone was king, and if you were so inclined, you could lead a jazz-flavored, smoke-filled, booze-soaked life in the city’s nightclubs. Here is where we first meet Velma Kelly (Terra C. MacLeod) who was a nightclub performer before she whacked her lover and her sister (in a compromising position, of course) and she brings us in with “All That Jazz,” sort of the show’s “Wilkkomen.” (Note: "Cabaret" is running at the Rep, so if you miss this and want a Kander and Ebb fix, you should check it out.) Roxie (Paige Davis) has been getting up to no good with her own lover who she kills when he tries to leave her. However, she tells her devoted but doltish mechanic husband, Amos (Todd Buonopane), to take the blame. He does, for about a Chicago minute at least, until he learns Roxie wasn’t the unwilling victim of a potential rapist.
Amos does, however, pay for Billy Flynn, a notorious criminal lawyer who is, like pretty much everyone else here except Amos, no better than he has to be. He’s famous for charging outrageous fees, but his clients are nearly always acquitted. He tells us just how that works in “All I Care About” and “Razzle Dazzle.” But here’s the kicker: these ladies, and I use the term loosely, don’t mind all this fuss much because you know how the old saying goes: “I don’t care what they say about me, as long as they spell my name right.” Velma wants back into show biz and Roxie aspires to Vaudeville, so taking actions that would embarrass a Kardashian, they go for it.
The matron of the prison where the two end up is “Mama” Morton (Carol Woods), who acts as a kind of agent. Like Billy, she’s really all about the money but she couches it as he does as acting out of “love.” Her big, beautiful belting voice adds a lot to “When You’re Good to Mama,” and her comic duet with Velma, “Class.” The “press” is mostly played by the ensemble, except for the gossip queen, Mary Sunshine (D. Micciche), whose favorable publicity for Billy’s clients always helps them. Mary displays an impressive soprano on “A Little Bit of Good,” which, around here anyway, is pretty hard to find. The only representative we have is Hunyak (Naomi Kakuk) whose only English words are “Uncle Sam” and “not guilty.” She believes in American justice. Chicago makes that concept an oxymoron.
There are few shows more flat out entertaining than this one if it is performed well, and it most certainly is in this production. O’Hurley is at his charmingly roguish best and in excellent voice as Billy. MacLeod is an amazing singer and dancer, and Davis may not be quite the vocal and dance athlete MacLeod is, but her performance is still very good, and she’s the better comedienne. She’s just so darn cute you can’t help but root for her. You may already know her as the longtime host of Trading Spaces on TLC a few years back.
If you’ve seen "Chicago" at all, you’ve seen this one—the iconic set and overall look of the production remains unchanged—but there are always surprises when different players take on these familiar roles. Chicago, St. Louis loves ya, so come back anytime.