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The New 'Chicago' Finds Its Time to Shine in Sour '90s

November 15, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — "In this town, murder is a form of entertainment," remarks a character in "Chicago," the Bob Fosse cult musical now outfitted in a fabulously confident revival for the post-O.J. era.

Bright and cold as a penny, the new "Chicago" opened Thursday night on Broadway, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It celebrates Roxie Hart, a chorus girl whose celebrity stock goes through the roof when she murders her lover. In 1996 a theater-goer can relax and enjoy the show's sleek cynicism with a clear eye and a knowing heart. As directed by Walter Bobbie, "Chicago" may be set in the '20s and created in the '70s, but it brims with the knowledge that it belongs to the '90s the way "Hair" belonged to the '60s.

"Chicago" was conceived by Fosse, who died in 1987, and co-book writer Fred Ebb (the story came from a 1926 play based on a real trial) and has a terrific score by John Kander and Ebb, arguably their best. The show opened in 1975, when people could still be shocked that Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme had made the cover of Time. Fosse's chief rival for the position of America's premier choreographer-director was Michael Bennett, and Bennett's "A Chorus Line" opened on Broadway one month after "Chicago." Both shows were dance-besotted, but "A Chorus Line" took the nurturing view of show business--neglected daughters became dancers because "everything was beautiful at the ballet." In "Chicago," two murderesses form a club act in order to extend their murder-trial publicity. The sentiments of "A Chorus Line" won the day; it took all the Tonys.

The new "Chicago" began life as a staged concert reading back in May. For the Broadway transfer, set designer John Lee Beatty retains the feel of a reading, with dancers watching scenes from chairs on the sidelines, and racks of lights sharing the stage with the stars. The wonderful orchestra (led by Rob Fisher) is also center stage, boxed in by a bronzed rectangle that looks like a huge picture frame tilted back at a severe angle--it's supposed to be a jury box. The set clearly states: "Chicago" is a revue based on a single idea; there is no honor and we should just cut out all the nonsense, do the numbers and look damn good doing them.

This has been extremely freeing to Bebe Neuwirth. Divorced from any responsibility except being fabulous, this feline dancer steals the show. She is Velma Kelly, Roxie's rival for the favors of a lawyer. In her clinging black slip, Neuwirth glows an alabaster white, radiating steely confidence as she leads the show's great opening number "All That Jazz." Later, she demonstrates how she'll cross her legs for the jury in "When Velma Takes the Stand," exhibiting a move that makes Sharon Stone's "Basic Instinct" character look like a piker. Her sexuality is utilitarian, purely for effect, and her emptiness is breathtaking. Neuwirth perfectly embodies the Fosse aesthetic of minimum, taut movement for maximum effect.

Choreographer and Fosse-ex-companion Ann Reinking lovingly re-creates the master's original, bracing style. A fine dancing ensemble, dressed in delicious black, with hints of S&M in their costumes (designed by William Ivey Long), deliver the ennui, the taut bodies, cocked arms and hanging heads of the Fosse oeuvre, where cool jazz reigns and attitude is as natural as air. I especially loved Reinking's witty staging of "Cell Block Tango," with its chorus of molls posing faux-seductively on a line of chairs, trying out their emphatic but unconvincing alibis ("and then I fired two warning shots . . . into his head").

Reinking plays Roxie Hart, the chorine on trial for the murder of a lover who wanted out. She brings a voluptuousness to the part, set off by her mannish hair, but she seems to exist in some alternate show-biz universe.

As Billy Flynn, the world's slickest lawyer, James Naughton is smooth as cream, cuing Roxie what to say on the witness stand. His paean to his profession, "Razzle Dazzle," is so applicable to certain newsworthy criminal defense attorneys that it's frightening. Marcia Lewis is solid as the tough, older Mama Morton, prison matron to the man-killing chorines. As Amos, Roxie's chump husband, Joel Grey seems to disappear into the blackness, leaving only an aura of plaint, as he sings "Mister Cellophane," his salute to obscurity.

The show relishes its steeliness, and it ends on a powerfully sour and equally stylish note. "Chicago" is astringent and clean, truly proud of its hardness and its shine. And shine it does. Bob Fosse decided we're all going to hell in a handbasket, and, in true big-city style, we should love every second of it. "Chicago" makes it easy to do just that.

* "Chicago," Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., New York, (800) 755-4000.

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